ImPRessions

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How To Restore A Public Reputation

CC BY-SA 3.0

When the college admissions cheating and bribery scandal broke nearly a month ago, two names led the headlines. More than 50 people were implicated, but actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were featured in every article. Both actors’ spouses were mentioned, and as a social influencer, Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade was also drawn into the coverage. But the two women were the faces of the scandal. It’s the price of fame; boldface names draw clicks.

Now, each woman is faced with a classic PR problem. Can they win back their reputation? If so, how?

Any expert will tell you that coming back from a public disgrace is a long haul. So far, only one – Huffman – has taken the first public steps toward recovery. Here’s the advice I’d give to her and her fellow defendants.

First, nail down the legal strategy. For a public person charged with a crime, the smartest legal strategy may be in conflict with the best public relations advice. PR people don’t like it when legal counsel wins at the expense of public image. But it happens, as when a public company CEO can’t admit wrongdoing due to liability concerns, despite knowing that a mealy-mouthed statement or “no comment” comment may prolong the damage. Happily for Huffman, in her case the legal and communications strategies are in sync. She swiftly chose to plead guilty and was free to move on to the next step – taking responsibility for her actions.

(In contrast, Lori Loughlin has thus far refused a plea deal, and at her court appearance she was all smiles, signing autographs for fans. Yesterday she and husband Mossimo Giannulli were slapped with more charges, so the stakes for them are higher, and the outlook for PR rehab is poor.)

Face the reality. This step is harder than it looks, and not just due to potential liability. Celebrities – even top business leaders among them – often live in a bubble. They’re surrounded by people whose livelihoods depend on pleasing them, and over time their judgment can become distorted. Many are tied to an infrastructure of agents, talent management, PRs, and support staff, and it’s difficult to upset the balance. While facing the music is often their only chance to preserve the career machine, it often feels counterintuitive, and it’s tempting to hide behind third parties.

Apologize. Do it sincerely and do it well. That’s exactly what Felicity Huffman did in a statement released yesterday. A poor or inadequate apology can make the situation far worse, but as such statements go, Huffman’s is pretty good. In fact, it’s worth breaking down what works.

Take responsibility. Huffman gets several things right in her messaging. First, she admits and accepts responsibility for what she did, a key precursor to an effective mea culpa. Importantly, she makes no excuses. This is where many public apologies go wrong; we’re all familiar with celebrities who blame substance abuse, emotional issues, or a bad childhood. Instead, Huffman expresses deep remorse for her actions, admitting, “I am ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community.”

Acknowledge those harmed. Another helpful aspect of the statement is its acknowledgement of others. A good apology and effective PR message shouldn’t be about you, the public personality whose life has been fractured, even though it may be natural to feel that way.

Finally, Huffman apologizes to “the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.”

That last part is key, because it hits on why the scandal infuriated so many people. The phony admissions schemes were shocking examples of how advantaged people cheat and game the system to gain even more advantage, and ordinary families were naturally outraged by it. Huffman did well to acknowledge that.

Make things right. It may sound paradoxical, but from a reputation point of view, Huffman should hope that she spends time in jail. She can’t fix what’s broken about the college admissions process, but she can pay for her crime. A reasonable penalty that includes a prison sentence will ultimately help restore her image because it will appeal to our sense of justice.  It worked for Martha Stuart, although in my view Stewart’s crime was less egregious. Of course it won’t hurt if either Huffman or Loughlin spend time doing legitimate volunteer work or donating to a worthy cause. But those steps come later.

Use media wisely. If I were advising Huffman I’d probably tell her to lie low until after her sentencing and (probably inevitable) incarceration. Repairing one’s reputation doesn’t have to involve media, and in many cases it’s better to avoid it, lest you appear to be capitalizing on the situation. For a professional actor, however, an eventual media sit-down is inevitable. When the time comes, Huffman should conduct an exclusive interview with a friendly media outlet as a way of sharing her story and completing the redemption journey. It should be honest, unvarnished, and heartfelt.

It’s a long road back, and in Huffman’s case, the admissions scandal will be in the first line of her obituary. But the cliché is true; while the media mob is a beast, especially amplified by social platforms, the American public is essentially forgiving. With the right reputation rehab and some time for people to forgive her, Felicity Huffman has a chance to return to a time when her biggest problem was which dress to wear on the red carpet.

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