We've all been there. (Well -- maybe we haven't been exactly there, but, work with me here -- let's pretend for a minute.)
Maybe you've done something stupid and made an insensitive joke on Twitter. Perhaps you've been caught cheating, or maybe it's something REALLY stupid, like telling your girlfriend not to bring 'blacks to the games' when you own an NBA franchise.
For whatever reason, you're in a deep, dark hole, and your thinking is muddied by the chorus of condescension calling for your resignation, your firing, or even worse.
In the cold light of day, it's easy to figure out your next move. But you're not thinking straight - remember, you're in a dark hole. It's tougher to navigate your way around. And perhaps because you're confused, you're upset, or you're in denial, you'll want to make the same mistake most people make when they find themselves in that hole -- and keep digging.
What's that one mistake? The one thing you don't want to do?
Don't keep digging. It's time to put down that shovel.
▪ Costa Concordia Captain Francesco Schettino claimed he tripped and accidentally landed in a lifeboat, which then took him to shore.
▪ Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, after an audiotape surfaced with him making racist remarks, claimed he is the victim in an elaborate blackmail sting, then proceeded to throw iconic star Magic Johnson under the bus.
▪ Toronto Mayor Rob Ford loudly proclaimed his innocence, before overwhelming evidence forced him to admit he was lying.
▪ Lance Armstrong appeared cocky as ever in a televised interview with Oprah, completely unrepentant.
In all cases, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, people who until that point had been leaders within their community point to the flimsiest of excuses, and merely invite further scorn to fall upon them. Its like they want to make things worse for themselves.
In many ways, the very act of attempted salvation is the act that dooms them.
Protesting innocence in a ridiculously feeble way not only tells the world you have no real plausible excuse, it also invites ridicule into the outrage. It announces to the world "I'm a liar who will say or do anything in order to save my own skin."
So what should you do?
Step One -- Stop digging. It's self explanatory, but if you're getting in trouble for saying stupid things, maybe it's time to just stop talking. Just for a few moments. You're going to WANT to jump to your own defense, and this is when you're going to say something stupid. I'm promising you -- you don't want to do that. This is truly a case where sometimes not responding is the better course of action.
Step Two -- As soon as you can issue a legitimate apology, jump on it. What's a legitimate apology? It's not saying "I'm sorry you feel that way."
This is not the time to be defensive. Acknowledge your conduct. Acknowledge and empathize with why people are upset. Express your emotional turbulence over what harm your actions have taken to a community (this is NOT the same thing as being upset because everyone wants you fired.) Express your deep, legitimate and authentic apology for acting in such an irresponsible manner. And if you can, make a meaningful attempt at compensation.
One of the best apologies I've seen in the last year? Justine Sacco. (Sacco unintentionally became famous when she made a grossly insensitive tweet about AIDS in Africa, then hopped on a plane. By the time she landed, she had gained thousands of followers looking for her head on a pole, and she was promptly fired from her position as head of communications for a media company.)
In her statement, the PR executive said that she was in "anguish knowing that my remarks have caused pain to so many people" in South Africa where she was born and where her father still lives. "Words cannot express how sorry I am, and how necessary it is for me to apologize to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet."
She added: "There is an AIDS crisis taking place in this country, that we read about in America, but do not live with or face on a continuous basis. Unfortunately, it is terribly easy to be cavalier about an epidemic that one has never witnessed firsthand."
Sacco will, with time, be OK. It won't happen overnight, but she will land on her feet. Conversely, one of the worst apologies of all time? Rob Ford. The list of jaw-droppingly bad errors he's made in attempting to apologize is so long it's easier to just link to a list.
Unfortunately for NBA fans, Donald Sterling is taking the Rob Ford route rather than the Justine Sacco route.
Step Three: Keep on listening. A big tactical error Justine Sacco made was deleting her Twitter account. She gained thousands of new fans on that infamous flight to Capetown, and when she deleted her account, she lost her ability to communicate.
It's not going to be easy. It's not going to be fun. But remember -- you were the one who screwed up. You brought this on yourself. If people are going to vent at you, let them do it. But when the temperature has dropped a few degrees, and the pressure isn't so intense, this is a fantastic opportunity.
Simply showing that you're a normal, polite, caring human being will be shocking enough to some people that they may become fans for life.
I'm not suggesting you need to wear sackcloth and ashes for the next 10 years, but humility is a tremendously attractive trait in people, for good reason. Let the anger die down, and use this as an opportunity. If you're convinced people have pegged you wrong, this is your opportunity to prove it, time and time again. But don't, under any circumstances, forget rule number four:
Rule Four: Don't do it again. The public is a tremendously forgiving group of people. We as a society love the underdog. We love the reformed alcoholic who can make good, or the truly apologetic CEO who can acknowledge his mistake and change his ways. In many ways, that level of public anger is simply the public's way of attempting to teach. After all, why do you think we have the expression "It's time we taught him a lesson?"
So make sure the lesson is learned. Because an alcoholic can be forgiven one time - but if he's caught in a gutter smelling of booze a year later, that trust is forever broken. A CEO accused of bad behavior might be forgiven, but if there's evidence you haven't learned your lesson, they're done. There is no forgiveness on tap anymore.
Donald Sterling could have gotten out of this one. But every indication I've seen so far says he's far more likely to use Rob Ford as a role model. He has long since used up your "get out of jail free" card.
There's only one option left now -- public opinion jail, where it appears he'll be serving a life sentence.
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