With 2015 now in the record books, a look back shows just how busy and…
Brian Williams calmly faced the camera – the same lens he has looked into night after night as anchor of the NBC News – and told viewers that he had “misremembered” being aboard a military helicopter struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq.
His 150-word explanation included one utterance of “apology” and one of “apologize.”
Worth a shot, right?
The public apology is usually a tried-and-true solution for celebrities who need to undo the damage caused by their words and actions. Admit the mistake, express deep embarrassment and profound regret, promise to do better, laugh about it with a late-night talk show host and then move on.
For some, the contrition works like magic.
Just ask Reese Witherspoon, who played the “Do you know who I am?” card with Atlanta police when she was charged with disorderly conduct in April 2013. One carefully worded statement and less than two years later, Witherspoon is firmly back in command of her America’s Sweetheart stronghold – and Oscar-nominated as “Best Actress” for “Wild.”
Or Jonah Hill, who briefly rode the remorse train last summer after hurling a homophobic slur toward a paparazzo. Only nine months later, a Google News search on the actor offers stories on his recent weight gain, his “mystery” new girlfriend and a documentary screening that he attended.
So how do some newsmakers get it right while others desperately and unsuccessfully try to regain whatever they once had?
“It’s situational,” says Jimmie Manning, associate professor in the NIU Department of Communication. “If you’re good at figuring these things out – if you’re good at getting ‘this is how you react in this situation’ – you can have a lucrative career in public relations.”
No matter what the infraction, he says, apologists must weigh the specifics of each case against the current cultural context, the initial reaction, other stories making news and the public persona of the celebrity in trouble.
Likeability factors in the response, he says. Beloved celebrities such as Witherspoon are more inclined to earn a pass or swift absolution.
Conversely, pop music icon Madonna is known for brushing off her controversies with a “So what?” response. It works because she’s nurtured a “rogue” persona, he says: She couldn’t care less about the old nude photos that surfaced in Playboy and Penthouse, nor was she ruffled by the outcry over her provocative video for “Like a Prayer.”
And what happened when Pepsi dropped its $5 million deal with the Material Girl over that video uproar? “She said, ‘Well, I (already) have the check,’ ” Manning says.
“You can embrace what you’ve done,” he says. “But fewer celebrities embrace what they’ve done and say, ‘So what?’ It might be because we’re more politically correct as a culture now.”
Lara Stache, a visiting assistant professor in communication who teaches classes in rhetoric, says celebrities are protecting their “brand” and the consumer dollars that those brands generate.
“We tend to get very angry with celebrities who we feel should be representing the best of us. We hold them to a higher level of behavior,” Stache says.
“There’s nothing that says they should be better human beings, but we as a public hold them accountable anyway. We expect them to acknowledge what they’ve done or we think badly of them,” she adds. “Celebrities are something we aspire to – to be as thin as they are, or to make as much money as they do – and when our idols fall off their pedestals, we want to put them back up as quickly as possible.”
Nonetheless, she says, “with all their money and all their power, we get a little bit of pleasure out of seeing them squirm. When celebrities do go on late night shows and issue their apologies, look at the viewership those get.”
Of course, not every mea culpa works.
Deen, for example, never recovered from accusations that she was a racist. The celebrity chef’s career “was already kind of done,” Manning says, and without a corporate machine behind her scrambling to ensure a return on its investment, she was left to fend for herself.
“It was really easy for people to cancel deals with her and get off her ride because her commercial worth had already run out,” he says. “And people don’t necessarily like Paula Deen. There already had been jokes about how much butter she used in her food and how she was unhealthy.”
Further complicating public image maintenance is social media.
Celebrities can delete their offensive tweets and Facebook posts, Stache says, but they can’t stop others from grabbing and posting screen-captures of those mistakes and thereby providing solid and damning evidence.
Video recorded on cell phones or omnipresent security cameras also makes it harder for celebrities to run away from their troubles. Former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice had been suspended by the NFL “so we knew something had happened,” Stache adds, but the release of his elevator footage forced the league and its fans to “react differently.”
Celebrities in trouble must “sound sincere” when voicing their regrets, Stache says.
“Actors and actresses act for a living,” she says. “They have to appear to be absolutely mortified by what has happened, and not just afraid that they are going to lose deals. They must seem genuinely sad and embarrassed that they caused harm to somebody. They have to acknowledge that it’s not just about them losing face but about hurting the people around them.”
Step Two, she says, is staying on the straight-and-narrow.
“Once you’ve done it more than once,” she says, “there’s something wrong with you. You’re spiraling down.”
Three, Manning says, is to move on.
Remember Isaiah Washington, the former “Grey’s Anatomy” star who took a hot water swim after allegations of homophobic slurs aimed at one his co-stars? The controversy had mostly cooled down when Washington decided to deny the accusations again – this time, however, standing with the rest of the cast on the stage of a televised awards show.
“It’s like, ‘Dude! Why would you bring this back up? People do not like you right now!’ ” Manning says. “You have to have that quiet period. Public memory can be short – if we allow it to be short.”