How to respond when past actions become public

With social media and a culture of outrage, past missteps can come back to bite you. Here’s how a PR team should respond when old mistakes come to light.

With today’s access to information and the ease of which people can share that information, a lot of skeletons are coming out of the closet.

This is especially true for celebrities. Where once the supermarket tabloids primarily ran headlines about “embarrassing” or “scandalous” celebrity stories, the market for that kind of “news” has grown exponentially. Even traditional nightly news programs run lead stories about “allegations,” “mistakes,” “misdeeds,” “misstatements” and all the other common euphemisms for a past indiscretion.

Making it worse, sometimes the terminology used does not make a clear differentiation between stupid decisions and prosecutable crimes. One recent example is the essentially self-inflicted firestorm surrounding actor Liam Neeson.

In what many have said was a profoundly unnecessary and ill-advised admission, Neeson shared a personal story of rage, regret and dangerous ideas, all with an obvious racial component. According to Neeson, years ago, a friend was raped by black person. When that friend shared her pain and trauma with Neeson, he said he felt rage, and that this rage caused him to, temporarily, consider committing violence against black men as an act of revenge.

The story had real consequences for Neeson and no amount of context or explanation was going to blunt the ensuing barrage of negative responses, both from traditional news outlets and online. A planned red carpet event for Neeson’s latest movie was canceled, and days later, people are still raging about the interview and Neeson’s statements attempting to explain or apologize.

What could Neeson have done differently, and what can we learn about how to manage a crisis that’s sparked by something from the past? PR pros might right off the incident as a case of celebrity gossip, but with more and more brands turning to big names for influencer campaigns and more, the threat is worth examining.

First, Neeson could have avoided this entire fiasco by just not volunteering this information. He was in a comfortable interview and he may have had his guard down, but there is really no space for hose kinds of mistakes anymore. Every public statement can be parsed, selectively edited and positioned based on various external motivations. The best treatment for this is prevention. Protect your privacy when at all possible, and do not volunteer information that could, in any way, come back and damage your brand.

If the cat is out of the bag…

You need to understand how the public really feels about that “skeleton” coming out and respond properly. The temptation will be to “check social media” and that’s a fine first step to get a handle for the size of the crisis—but it’s not a silver bullet. You need to do more research and further assessing to determine what people are really saying and thinking.

Concentrate on earning media to establish and promote a positive, yet empathetic, narrative. No matter how innocent you may feel, some folks might be legitimately upset. Offer a counter-narrative, but do so with the understanding that connection is crucial component of your message.

Your tone must be sincere. Your response is going to be dissected by bloggers and social media influencers, so canned boilerplate comments will often do more harm than good. Again, connectivity here is key. Temper any feelings of “being in the right” with empathy and humility, and speak from that place.

Authenticity is what most people will look for. Avoid slogans, sales speak and meaningless words. Skip the legal jargon as much as possible. Talk to people like you’re sitting in their living room.

The need for speed

Address the issue quickly to avoid escalation and capture some of the narrative initiative. Authenticity is important, but so is speed. You may be embarrassed, but you can’t just sit on the issue and let others define the story.

How would you have handled the crisis management for Neeson, PR Daily readers?

Ronn Torossian is CEO of NYC based PR firm 5WPR.

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