“Credibility is like virginity. Once you lose it you can’t get it back.”
As a person who has spent my entire working career in public relations, this is one of my favorite quotes, although I was always too nervous to use it in a corporate environment. It so perfectly illustrates the finality of losing one’s credibility. In reality, however, it’s not that black and white, as many people over time can build back their credibility almost all the way. It really depends on how much credibility you had in the first place. Case in point: disgraced NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams vs. pop star Ariana Grande. One based his career on telling the news to us straight and the other is a kid who sings songs about having 99 problems, not 100. Brian Williams’ future hinges on his apology for getting the facts “turned around in his head.” That “turning around” somehow resulted in his telling the world he was way more courageous than he actually is. Ariana Grande licked some donuts.
I’ve always been fascinated by public apologies from celebrities, athletes and politicians, and how people say they are sorry, or more specifically, how they completely mangle a very easy thing to do. Pretty much every day we are treated to another celebrity saying “sorry” for something they often are not really sorry about. Maybe because I’ve worked in PR, I look at things through a lens of how I would have apologized differently. And the funny thing is, there’s a very simple way to get out of trouble. It’s called…wait for it…telling the truth. Imagine that. I’m not a biblical person, but I’m pretty sure telling the truth goes back as far as the Garden of Eden. And yet, so few public figures ever do so — and if they do, it’s almost never on the first try. Telling the truth works because everyone has lied at some point and when a celebrity comes clean it makes them more relatable to us mere flawed mortals.
But ego or bad advice get in the way. As a society we love to forgive, we love redemption stories, and we love watching people pick themselves up after they knock themselves down. We’re an optimistic bunch — and we want to believe that if our most public figures can be redeemed than we can as well. And yet way more often than not, time and time again, public figures are “taken out of context” or are “sorry if my words offended you” or are “sorry for my poor choice of words.”
At this point, you should know that there are plenty of good apologies out there. Reese Witherspoon got good marks for apologizing after she drunkenly berated a police officer with “do you know who I am?” language after being pulled over for a DUI. Hugh Grant went on to be an even bigger star (yeah Notting Hill) after apologizing on The Tonight Show for getting caught with a prostitute, and I didn’t have any issue with Jonah Hill’s apology after using a homophobic slur.
In each case the apology worked because the apologist hit directly on what we all know they did wrong. So when Reese Witherspoon says, “We went out to dinner in Atlanta, and we had one too many glasses of wine, and we thought we were fine to drive and we absolutely were not. It’s completely unacceptable, and we are so sorry and embarrassed. We know better, and we shouldn’t have done that.” We like what she said because she admitted she drank too much and that she was wrong and embarrassed.
When Brian Williams refuses to say the one thing he has to say (“I lied”) to regain his credibility or when Jason Biggs tweets about selling his Malaysia Airlines frequent flier miles just hours after a crash, he needs to say “I’m a fucking classless idiot who made one good movie” or when Ariana Grande refuses to say “I acted like a poorly-behaved 3-year old and I should have just bought the donuts I licked” they dig an even greater hole for themselves.
Imagine how you would feel about Lance Armstrong if he has just come out and said “As I was making my return from cancer, I feared I wouldn’t be able to come back and win so I helped myself by taking steroids. I continued to take them because they worked and the fear of losing was worse to me than the fear of disgracing myself, which I have now done.”
And if you’re not going to make a truly sincere apology, then I recommend the Donald Trump route. Stand behind your stupid comments and go down with the ship. We may believe what Trump has said about immigrants to be vile and racist – and his words were that and more, but at least he’s owning it. In some messed up way, that gives him more credibility than Brian Williams who is too busy lying to himself to worry about his lies to everyone else.
Ok, so where am I going with this? Why is it important?
Well, because our five-year old Alex says, “I’m sorry” ALL OF THE TIME. When he doesn’t get into the car fast enough, or spills a little bit of water, or splashes his brother in the bathtub, or just about anything. And like a “well-trained” celebrity, he has different levels of remorse:
- Level 1: “ I’m sorry about that” — used for just about anything including dropping a crayon on the floor. Absolutely no remorse, just trying to get out of trouble.
- Level 2: “I didn’t mean to do that, it was an accident” — just flat out lying.
- Level 3: “I’m sorry I messed that whole thing up.” — he’s actually sorry, showing remorse and knows he did something wrong (and it’s really cute by the way). Sometimes this will come hours and often a day after said incident occurs. And the behavior is way less likely to be repeated.
In our house, there are few things frowned upon more than lying. I’m too lazy to read about how to deal with a lying child so we deal with it like this: Praise the truth even if it’s bad.
“Daddy, did you see the hole in the wall?” (self-incriminating of course)
“Wow, how did that happen?”
“I don’t know.”
“Jesse did it, he threw a car” (Jesse is a friend who is 3 years old and an awesome scapegoat).
“Are you sure?”
“Yep, Jesse did it.”
“Ok Alex, but you know mommy and daddy want you to tell us the truth, no matter what (my brain flashes forward to conversation with 16-year old Alex denying drinking). You won’t get in trouble if you tell the truth, only if you lie.”
“So, did you throw the car that dented the wall?”
“Thank you for telling me the truth.” High-fives and hugs commence.
Who knows if this will really work long-term and I’m sure many of you have better approaches.
But there’s one other part to Alex’s sorry state of sorry. The majority of the time the lesson we want him to learn isn’t how to appropriately say “sorry” but to not commit the offense in the first place, like when he pushes his little brother to get his iPad back despite being told he needs to share.
And that’s the real lesson about credibility. The more times you need to apologize, the more your credibility suffers. So for Brian Williams, and Reese Witherspoon and Ariana Grande and Ted Cruz and Hugh Grant and just about everyone else who has ever existed, telling the truth is a great solution.
But the even better one is not to fuck up in the first place.
Photo courtesy of David Shankbone/Flickr