How long does it take to lose your reputation? Today, a meltdown can happen within hours. A previously little known ESPN reporter named Britt McHenry experienced one recently for some very unattractive behavior. As the world knows, McHenry used insulting and vulgar language to castigate an employee of a company that towed her car—knowing that she was being videotaped. The controversy over her one week suspension from ESPN has touched off a debate involving classism, entitlement, privacy, and sexism. It’s only the latest in a parade of shame scandals large (Ray Rice) and small (Dennis Quaid’s faux tirade) and PR lessons for us all.
Yet the shame game isn’t only about celebrities; “regular” people are also vulnerable. Just ask Justine Sacco, the PR executive who was pilloried all over the web (and fired) after an ill-conceived tweet a year and a half ago. Only last week, when a client needed help with specialized services, I thought to call an old colleague whose creative skills always impressed. But we hadn’t spoken in a couple of years, so I Googled his company first for an update. Harsh comments from unpaid freelancers deterred me from getting in touch. Not a reputation crisis, maybe, but surely a problem.
Seven PR Lessons
Here’s some commonsense PR lessons for anyone who’s caught in the brutal teeth—deserved or not—of the raging internet shame machine.
Apologize. And mean it. McHenry’s apology was too pat and far too self-focused to be a true expression of contrition. She could have dug deeper to express regret, and she should have apologized directly to the person she insulted, the towing company employee. For better examples of celebrity mea culpas after a shamestorm, see Jason Alexander or Jonah Hill.
Don’t lie. In the digital age, it’s very difficult to conceal anything, even the most private of private behavior. In some cases, the coverup is more damaging than the actual offense. Most cover stories, like Anthony Weiner’s claim that his Twitter was hacked after the sexting scandal broke, are fairly easy to disprove.
Take a break. Some victims of the shame machine try too hard to take on their antagonists in social media. It’s nearly impossible to be objective, and often it’s adding fuel to the fire. Retreat doesn’t mean defeat.
Let allies defend you. If you must go on the offensive, let surrogates carry the water. Third parties can be tapped to post comments, tweet, or be interviewed on your behalf in a truly viral reputation crisis. The advantage here is intense media interest, which can often be parlayed into exclusive access to new information or insight.
Mend fences. If you have no allies, it may be time to launch a charm offensive to cultivate or woo back those you have alienated. Depending on the nature of the infraction, it may take months or years to win back a reputation.
Shame the shamer. If the criticism is out of line, you can give as good as you got, but seize the moral high ground if possible. Look at how Pink responded on Twitter when trolls criticized her weight after she appeared at a benefit. Or Kelly Clarkson, who was singled out by an anti-obesity activist. Each handled the attack with grace, which in the long run is best.
Use your shame for good. In the case of a truly sensational shaming, redemption can be a long time coming. Look at Monica Lewinsky, who refers to herself as “patient zero” of internet shaming. Now, 18 years after she was originally “outed” for private behavior with a very public man, Lewinsky has made lemons into reputation lemonade. Her TED talk has racked up millions of views, and she’s received apologies from many of the comics and columnists for whom she was a punch line and a punching bag. She did it by embracing and turning around her own victimhood, becoming a champion of those who suffer from online humiliation.
This article was syndicated from Business 2 Community: 7 PR Lessons From The Internet Shame Machine
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