Everyone who’s faced a crisis that severely threatened or damaged his/her reputation has had this thought: “When will I be able to show my face in public again?” No matter the circumstances or individuals involved, the top priority—after dealing with the immediate situation—is getting back some, or all, of one’s reputation.
Reputation restoration doesn’t mean that the public will respect you as much as they did before you stepped in it. It means getting one’s reputation back to the level that you can been seen as an expert in your field, as someone whose opinion should be listened to and respected, as someone who has something to offer. And, it could mean future employment opportunities.
I’ve always believed there’s a trustworthy, if not foolproof, method for someone to restore his/her reputation after a particularly severe self-immolation. It’s a three-step process:
1. Deal with the crisis
3. Slowly come back into the public eye
The idea is to show that you’ve acknowledged and accepted that you did wrong, and then step away so the public can move on. Use this time not only in self-examination, but also to plan how you could return to the public eye. After a while, people will remember the things you did well and not just the crisis.
This process only works if the crisis is truly dealt with. This means acknowledging it and accepting the appropriate repercussions. If you disappear without accepting your “punishment” and then attempt a comeback, all people will remember is that you never owned up to what was obvious to everyone else.
The best example of this method was disgraced President Richard Nixon. With the exception of the disastrous interviews with David Frost, Nixon after his resignation stayed out of the limelight for years. During his retreat, he wrote books that examined his and others’ foreign policy and the state of the world. This allowed people to remember his expert knowledge of international affairs, while never forgetting the crimes he and his administration committed. Obviously, the only U.S. President who resigned would never have a 100 percent restored reputation—but he got a closer than most expected.
We’ve all seen examples of the counter-example: the disgraced public figure who attempts to jump right back into “the game.” Last year, a story was floated that Charlie Rose was considering a TV show comprised of interviews with other men whose actions towards women resulted in their losing their jobs. This was insanely premature for a number of reasons, not least of which is that while these men (subjects would have reportedly included Matt Lauer and Louis C.K.) may think their personal crisis is “over,” they’re wrong. So long as more men are being called to account for their past actions as part of the long-overdue #MeToo movement, their crisis is still “alive.” The three-step response requires the public to forget your indiscretions, or at least not be reminded of them on a daily basis.
Lately I’ve wondered, in the current media and social environment, if reputation recuperation is even possible. In a world where everyone’s past can be conjured up in a few keystrokes by anyone with Internet access, is it possible for anyone to move past his/her past?
At the least, it’s harder. While there were always people who would never forgive or forget, those numbers seem to have increased as American culture has cleaved itself in two. And public accountability is at the highest level I can recall—for both individuals and corporations.
Factor into this the accelerated pace of the culture. The timeline from first indication of a problem to expected conclusion has become miniscule (unless you’re the CEO of CBS, apparently). This means that problems, if they’re going to be forgotten, will be forgotten faster.
But, it’s less likely they’ll be forgotten.
So, in this contradictory situation, can a reputation be restored? I don’t know. I realize that’s not a sentence often used in a “how to do it” article. But, the fact is we haven’t been in this current climate long enough to have seen an example of a successful restoration.
My feeling is that it’s possible to get a reputation back, but it’s significantly harder than ever. As I said before, one advantage is the speed at which the culture is moving. While many crises —especially ones involving racism, homophobia, sexual harassment or assault—are stickier than ever, many others are moved past faster. So, if you’ve been caught doing something, and you’ve handled it, the speed at which you’re forgotten is faster.
This should mean that the time you have to spend away from the limelight should be shorter. If the public has moved on faster than it used to, then forgetting you should also be faster. So, you can use your “comeback plan” sooner than you would’ve had to just three years ago. We’re not talking days or weeks here. And I suspect not months. Even in this Mach 3.0 culture, plan to be out of the limelight for a couple of years.
When you do come back, the public will have access to everything about your crisis—as well as your actions during your “disappearance.” They’ll instantly be able to relearn your entire situation. Therefore, it’s paramount that the situation be handled correctly when it first hits.
Recently, Sen. Al Franken made small steps in returning to the limelight through select tweets on the biggest issues of the day. He has a few factors in his favor: being funny—we give comedians latitude others don’t enjoy—having committed sins not as egregious as most cases that were reported and being part of the earliest wave of #MeToo culprits. How successful he’s been will be judged over the next months and years.
In an earlier version of this piece, I cited Louis C.K. as someone else who was working to get back in the public eye through a series of unannounced comedy club appearances. Unfortunately, since that draft, he disparaged the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting during a recent set. His material should’ve made fun of his own foibles and what he learned from his experience. Instead, he “punched down.” Maybe the most important rule of reputation rehabilitation is “don’t create another crisis in the process.”
There are people who will never get even a sliver of their reputation back: murderers, molesters and those who covered up for them, for example. But for the garden-variety crisis sufferer, I believe reputation rehabilitation is still possible in 2019. It just takes the right circumstances, actions, timing and luck.
Ken Scudder has provided media training, presentation training, crisis communications training and consulting, and writing and editing to business leaders, celebrities, and politicians for more than 20 years.