We have all said or done things we wish we hadn’t. Fortunately, most of us don’t have our errors in judgment or embarrassing gaffes replayed through televised media. But why is it that some people who make their mistakes in the public eye manage to overcome it, while others have their careers permanently ruined?
What Is “Scandalous”?
The public’s attitude to celebrity behavior has become more lenient on certain issues, but more rigid on others. Incidents involving drugs or alcohol tend to be viewed through a lens of compassion, the offending celebrity seen as someone whose personal demons have overtaken them and who needs help. Cheating, nonviolent crime, or sexual indiscretions hardly register on the public’s radar and are quickly forgotten. Incidents involving violence or bigotry, though, are not as readily forgiven and require genuine repentance to overcome.
Not every PR fiasco involves illicit substances or racist comments. Consider that, in a recently published Rolling Stone interview, Serena Williams went against her image as a strong female role model when she essentially blamed the victim of the Steubenville rape case for being out late at night, “too drunk” to even remember the incident. Similarly, Justin Bieber thought it was okay to write self-promotional comments in the guest book of the world-famous Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. Beyoncé’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at President Obama’s second inauguration raised eyebrows when it was revealed she had lip-synced the performance.
Contrition is the main ingredient of a successful recovery from potentially career-ending misconduct. Even big Hollywood stars are only human and sometimes make huge mistakes, just like the rest of us. But to be forgiven, one must first acknowledge wrongdoing and accept responsibility for one’s actions. Blaming circumstances or pointing to someone else as “the real villain,” claiming to have been misinterpreted or taken out of context, is not a true expression of regret and does not appease the public.
Alec Baldwin recently instigated, via Twitter, a call to action toward a gay journalist who had defamed Baldwin and his wife. Baldwin, a long-time supporter of GLAAD and other LGBT organizations, is also known for his volatile temper. For Alec Baldwin, it’s more a case of his primary defense mechanism being to say the most hurtful things he can think of in retaliation against a specific individual, and not a condemnation of an entire social group. Regardless, his behavior, which included threats of violence, was in no way acceptable, and Baldwin himself openly acknowledged that in his immediate public apology and self-imposed Twitter ban.
Of course, in order to take responsibility, one must first have a clear understanding of what he or she has done wrong. Serena Williams didn’t seem to understand that her comments were reflecting an attitude that perpetuates rape culture. When she attempted to handle her blunder on her own, she only made matters worse. Williams posted what was less an apology and more a rebuttal, to “what [she] supposedly said” in her interview with Rolling Stone, on her website. It was quickly replaced by a more polished, more contrite version, which was likely written by her handlers.
In Beyoncé’s case, her PR team denied any duplicity altogether, and that’s what irked the public. Handlers defended the singer by insisting that it was standard procedure to record a “backing track” for an outdoor performance, despite the fact that Kelly Clarkson, who performed at the same event, sang live.
Paula Deen as a Case Study
The recent Paula Deen debacle could be a case study in how not to handle a PR crisis. Deen seems to have done everything exactly the wrong way.
- Misstep 1: Deen was oblivious to her own misconduct. She qualified her past use of racist language as normal given her upbringing but didn’t understand that, rather than providing a context in which the behavior might be excused, she actually spotlighted her cultural attitudes. She made matters worse by trying to explain that, when she did use such language, it was in describing her attacker during a robbery—the implication being that the epithet was acceptable in that circumstance. Further, she attempted to explain that her brief inclination to have an antebellum themed wedding, complete with “slaves,” was perfectly innocent because it wasn’t actually her idea.
- Misstep 2: Deen avoided taking responsibility. Deen’s reps issued a statement holding the media responsible for painting her as a racist. Public perception further deteriorated when they released a second statement, this time justifying the TV chef’s erstwhile racism due to growing up “when America’s South had schools that were segregated…”
- Misstep 3: Deen rejected the chance to use televised media for a well-planned apology. Scheduled to appear on Today, Deen canceled at the last minute despite already being in New York, where the show is recorded. She turned instead to YouTube to appeal directly to the public for forgiveness. However, though apparently contrite, Deen didn’t seem to fully comprehend what she was apologizing for. It didn’t help that, despite its brevity, the video had four clear edits, dropping Deen’s credibility to zero.
Most of Deen’s sponsorship partners have left. Still, she was very gracious toward The Food Network, thanking them for 11 years of support. She was equally complimentary of her former agent. Where she goes now depends a lot on what she does next. If she keeps a low profile, stops trying to justify her actions, and issues an apology that people believe, she might be able to save her career.
Was Deen treated too harshly? Or did she just not understand the power of televised media? Sound off in the comments below.
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