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The Broadcast Monitoring Blog

A Slip of the Tongue: Lessons from Celebrities on Reputation Management

It’s tough to be a celebrity, politician, business leader, or journalist in the age of television and the Internet. Make a mistake or a slip of the tongue, and your error could be ricocheting through social media in seconds. And the talking heads will be, well, talking about you on the local morning shows and nightly newscasts.

This year alone, the list of recent slips and trips is long and infamous: Brian Williams, Keith Olbermann, Patricia Arquette, Kanye West – all had to defend, explain, apologize for, or walk-back statements they made.

And it’s not just individuals. Silicon Valley’s favorite unicorn, Uber, had to explain why one of its executives was interested in digging up dirt on journalists. The slip sent the company into a PR tailspin.

CNN’s afternoon anchor Brooke Baldwin apologized after she put the blame for policing problems on military veterans returning home from war. A day later, she went on the air, admitted her words were a mistake, and apologized.

ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos also issued apologies. Not for what was said, but for what wasn’t said. He failed to disclose a $75,000 donation to the Clinton Foundation when reporting on Hillary Clinton or the nonprofit. Because journalists are expected to remain neutral in reporting, the omission raised issues about trust.

Slips and omissions, if not handled correctly, can damage a reputation. But crisis management experts generally agree the best way to handle such a situation is by issuing a heartfelt apology. Nearly all of those mentioned above handled their missteps with an apology. Yet some were more successful than others.

Public apologies can be tough. What does it take to express a convincing regret? To avoid sounding insincere or being accused of issuing a “non-apology” apology, follow these steps.

Analyze coverage

The further your misstep travels, of course, the larger a problem you’ll have. But reviewing the reaction of TV news commentators and social media commenters will help you understand how to address their concerns in your apology. As always, know your audience.

Act quickly

Don’t wait several days to assess the damage before making your apology. The longer you wait, the more insensitive you’ll seem, and the story will be extended longer than you’d like. It may be tempting to wait and hope the public will be distracted by another news story, but that’s a chance you don’t want to take.

Apologies Start with “I”

The most effective apologies both take ownership of the misstep and also include the word “sorry.” The only way to do both is to begin your statement with one of two phrases: either “I/we apologize” or “I’m/We’re sorry.”

Be Genuine

For an apology to be believed, it must be heartfelt. Acknowledge that you misspoke and that your words had an impact, however unintended. Brooke Baldwin’s apology was effective because she took ownership of her mistake and was contrite.

Make Amends

The public wants assurance a mistake will be corrected. This is what makes the apologies of Brian Williams and George Stephanopoulos difficult. Restoring trust doesn’t happen overnight.

Monitor Reactions Closely

After the apology, keep monitoring local TV news and social media, and assess the reactions. Is there more positive feedback than negative? Is it still a news item in local markets? If news commentators and the public don’t seem to be buying your response, you may need to take steps to reinforce your message – or even apologize again.

Apologies can be tricky, but they are an effective way to manage your reputation after a mistake.

Of course, you could always try actor Chris Pratt’s approach and issue a pre-apology:

I want to make a heartfelt apology for whatever it is I end up accidentally saying during the forthcoming #JurassicWorld...

Posted by Chris Pratt on Friday, May 22, 2015


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