PR Lessons From The Internet Shame Machine

Building a reputation can take years, but you can lose it in a PR minute. Britt McHenry is a recent example of the internet shame machine. The previously obscure ESPN journalist was videotaped hurling harsh insults at an employee of a company that towed her car. Her one-week suspension touched off a debate involving entitlement, classism, privacy, and the power of the web to make or break a reputation. The humiliation may have been deserved, but its speed and cruelty was notable.

Yet the shame game isn’t only for quasi-celebrities. Just ask Justine Sacco, the PR executive who lost her job after a controversial tweet in 2013. Sacco tweeted just before boarding a long plan flight without the internet access. Her inability to respond to criticism of her tweet exacerbated her punishment by the social media mob.

As Jon Ronson recounts in his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, it can happen to anyone who makes an online misstep. He recaps the experience of Lindsey Stone, the special-ed teacher whose reputation was ruined after she posted a photo that she meant as a joke, but others considered disrespectful to the military. Then there’s Adria Richards and the two male developers whose picture she tweeted after they made puerile comments about dongles at a technology conference. Not only was one of the offenders fired, but Richards also lost her job over the mess. As one journalist puts it, “the internet is unforgiving of stupid mistakes.”

What Are The Takeaways for PR Professionals?

Here’s some commonsense PR lessons for anyone caught in the brutal teeth of the internet shame machine.


And mean it. Britt McHenry’s initial apology was focused on herself, which is never good. A better strategy would have been to apologize directly – and more sincerely – to the towing company employee. For outstanding examples of celebrity mea culpas after a public shamestorm, see Jason Alexander or Jonah Hill.

Don’t lie or deny

If the bad behavior is real, admit it. In these digital times, it’s nearly impossible to hide anything, even the most private of private behavior.  There are many instances where the attempts to cover up are more damaging than the actual sin. Digital behavior in particular leaves fingerprints. A claim that your Twitter account was hacked or that a certain email was never sent isn’t likely to hold up, and it brands you as a liar to boot.

Take a break

Some victims of the shame machine try too hard to take on their antagonists directly through social media.  It’s hard to be objective, and often it’s adding fuel to the fire.  Remember, 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 or below the belt, turn things around by taking the high road.  Look at how Pink responded on Twitter when trolls tried to shame her as overweight.  Or Kelly Clarkson, who was criticized by an anti-obesity activist as a poor role model. Each rose above the criticism and made the attackers look small (but not in a good way.)

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 ignominy.  Now, 18 years after she was originally “outed” for private behavior with a very public man, Lewinsky has made lemons into reputation lemonade.

She did it by embracing and owning her own victimhood in becoming an anti-bullying activist. Today the buzz around Lewinsky is about her being a champion of those targeted for the very digital humiliation that she endured. Lewinsky’s TED talk has been viewed millions of times and she’s received apologies from many of the comics and columnists for whom she was a punch line and a punching bag.

This post was originally published in a slightly different version on MENGBlend.

5 Tips For Monica Lewinsky In Opening A PR Firm

PR Daily reports that Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton’s infamous intern, has endured 17 years of struggle since the scandal and has now decided to open her own public relations firm.

This is sad on so many levels.  Because saying one is “in PR” has a certain non-specific glamour to it, the field has often been a sort of dumping ground for the rich and underqualified. Hollywood has added to the falsely seductive PR image. There’s a long and illustrious list of TV characters, including Kim Cattrall’s Samantha Jones, and Debi Mazar’s Shauna Roberts, who have brought a ridiculous PR woman stereotype to life in a vivid way.

Ms. Lewinsky may be very bright, but what qualifies her to manage public relations for clients? I don’t know that having “not had sex” with the president is an indication for talent in the biz.

There is also the sense that, just as Hootie and the Blowfish lead singer Darius Rucker fled to country-western when his rock career careened, some choose the PR field because it seems easy to hang a shingle and get started. As if! Several years ago, armed with a degree in journalism, a phone and a computer, yes – a hearty entrepreneurial type could make a go of it. Not so today – the world of PR has changed so much in the last few years, only the smart, capable and fearless need apply.

With that said, I wish Ms. Lewinsky luck in whatever endeavor she should choose. But she might want to heed the following before proceeding down the PR path.

Do some pro bono work for an organization that helps impressionable teen girls or kids at risk, to help bolster her commitment to both the craft of PR and a cause she may have personal connection to.

Get out of the big markets. Go somewhere where her name may mean less as time has passed and she may experience more acceptance.

Or, play up her reputation and offer to handle the scandal-plagued of today with the voice of experience. Go after Gloria Allred’s clients!

Get an education. Seek out PR guidance from the pros, either in an academic setting or a few minutes’ time with names in the business. Odds are her calls would be returned.

Make the most of social media. Craft a witty blog, tweet with verve and blog. There’s a lot of learning in scandal.

I doubt we’ve heard the last of Monica, after all, we are the “land of second acts.”