What would you tell Matt Lauer or Garrison Keillor if you were advising them?
Both media personalities have been accused of sexual impropriety, and both have been fired. These men are the latest additions to the “me too” year in which women — and men — came forward to expose unwanted advances, abuse and sexual misconduct endured at the hands of powerful men. Many giants have fallen in the fray, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Bill O’Reilly, Terry Richardson, Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner and Charlie Rose among them.
Right now the million-dollar question, from a PR standpoint, is this: what’s their next best move?
Sex scandals and other PR disasters
Our PR agency teamed up with Propeller Insights in November to determine how Americans felt about these scandals and what would be the best way to handle them. We surveyed more than a thousand Americans and discovered that the sexual assault scandals of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey were considered to be among the worst PR disasters of the year.
Nearly half (46 percent) anticipate more sex scandals in 2018.
Act swiftly, speak clearly
So, if you find yourself on the public’s chopping block, what’s the right response? When it comes to U.S. companies, the advice is to respond quickly and plainly.
A majority of Americans (54 percent) want companies to respond to a crisis within 24 hours. They also want to be promised an independent investigation and to be told the mistake won’t be repeated. More than a third of Americans want an apology, and they want that apology to be stated simply without a lot of obfuscation.
This is solid advice for individuals as well.
Avoid red flag phrases
As it turns out, Americans are cynical of most responses when it comes to a person accused of sexual misconduct.
The response that will cast the most doubt on a person’s sincerity is an inability to remember what happened, according 43 percent of Americans.
There’s also terminology that engenders doubt, including, in order of dubiousness:
• “Fake news”
• “I swear”
• “Media conspiracy”
• “The accusations are untrue”
• “From the bottom of my heart”
Putin or the Post?
It’s worth noting that when the Roy Moore scandal broke, the Republican National Committeeman from Alabama, Paul Reynolds, said he trusted Vladimir Putin more than the Washington Post.
Bospar and Propeller Research put the same question to Americans and discovered that more than three-quarters (78 percent) were not of his same mind. But just over one-in-five (22 percent) said they did indeed trust Putin more than the Washington Post.
On the day-to-day, more than a quarter of Americans (26 percent) say they most trust journalists. Another 14 percent put more credence in their Twitter or Facebook feed, while a minority most trust athletes (10 percent), politicians (8 percent) and — at the bottom of the list — actors (8 percent).
So, back to Lauer and Keillor. For his part, Keillor didn’t use any of the expressions Americans find distasteful in this statement on his website:
“I am deeply grateful for all the years I had doing ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ and ‘The Writer’s Almanac,’ the summer tours, the outdoor shows at Tanglewood and Wolf Trap, the friendships of musicians and actors, the saga of Lake Wobegon, the songs and sketches, Guy Noir, Dusty & Lefty, the sheer pleasure of standing in the warmth of that audience. A person could not hope for more than what I was given. I’ve been fired over a story that I think is more interesting and more complicated than the version MPR heard. Most stories are. It’s some sort of poetic irony to be knocked off the air by a story, having told so many of them myself, but I’m 75 and don’t have any interest in arguing about this. And I cannot in conscience bring danger to a great organization I’ve worked hard for since 1969. I am sorry for all the poets whose work I won’t be reading on the radio and sorry for the people who will lose work on account of this. But my profound feeling is that of gratitude, especially to my wife Jenny, and for this painful experience that has brought us even closer together.”
Meanwhile the coming days and weeks will be a pivotal moment for Lauer, and how he behaves will likely determine the fate of his career.
But if he’s wise, he’ll act swiftly, apologize plainly and make amends to the women in question and to his millions of fans.
Curtis Sparrer is co-founder and principal at Bospar.