“It was a wardrobe malfunction.” – Performer Justin Timberlake, explaining the 2004 Superbowl breast baring incident that resulted in public outrage and a $550,000 FCC fine on CBS (voided by the Supreme Court in 2011).
“That depends on how you define the word ‘is’” – Former President Bill Clinton, testifying during televised questioning about the alleged Monica Lewinsky intern affair.
When it comes to public humiliation, we’ve all been there. Or we’ll get there yet. The microphone we didn’t realize was live. The ill-chosen words in a moment of stress. The product that fails at a critical moment. The mugshot that immortalizes a moment of impairment. Technology fails. Wardrobes malfunction. When Transformers Director Michael Bay stepped on stage for a Samsung press conference at CES in January the teleprompter failed. He fled the stage. The implosion made national news.
When a mistake uncovered singer Ashlee Simpson lipsynching on a television broadcast she danced an impromptu jig. (She recovered her career and performed on the same show a year later without incident.) Rob Pilatus, half of the disgraced singing duo Milli Vanilli, was less fortunate. After winning a Grammy in 1989, the team was unveiled as a scam a year later when music failed while Pilatus was standing on stage. Following the disaster, Pilatus’ life propelled him into a continuing path of wrong turns, culminating in his death from an overdose in 1998 at age 32.
Further complicating the situation, when humiliation happens, families and businesses are also involved.
For example, in the case of art dealer Charles Saatchi caught on camera grabbing the throat of his wife, Nigella Lawson, the embarrassment was not only his own, but now affects the business and reputation of Lawson as a TV chef and presenter as well. The connection may not seem fair, but it is a fact of life that every business and every visible individual must be prepared to address.
When a close friend was wrongfully dragged into an SEC investigation (a situation that’s happened to several people I know), he confessed that in that moment, no amount of financial impact or career damage mattered to him. Thinking only of the unfair pain his wife and family would face in the mortification, he chose to settle immediately rather than fight. He paid a giant sum to the SEC and faced the knowledge that his professional resume would perhaps be tainted for decades to come.
The executive then discovered, too late, the entire case was still reported and recorded in full, with his giant settlement now sitting on the Internet for eternity as a seeming admission of guilt. In hindsight, he now realizes he subjected his family to an outcome that is perhaps even worse than if he’d ventured forward and fought.
So what is the right way to react when humiliation happens? And particularly when the humiliation affects your business and career (as well as your family and life), what can you do? Must you apologize and settle quickly? Or is it better to hope the situation dies down or to try to deflect it with humor? Will it be possible for your life or your business to even go on?
Psychologist Les Posen says that whether you joke about the incident or whether you apologize, the main principle at stake is to take responsibility for the occurrence (using the advice of your legal counsel on situations that are still uncertain or that involve key facts not yet known) and to take full responsibility for your actions.
In a business setting, you should phone your lawyer first and your PR counselor second. Whatever happens after those calls should take the advice of these essential advisors into account. We can also learn some valuable lessons from the ways public figures have handled their public brushes with shame.
Overcoming a Humiliating Incident
Regardless of the nature of the humiliation–things said or done while impaired, an on-the-job tragedy, a lawsuit, an investigation or an employee misdeed or misstatement—there are several general principles that will always apply, Posen says:
- Keep your cool. A great share of public humiliations are the result of anger and stress. The PR guy who lost his cool and beat up a heckling reporter (on film). Alec Baldwin. Charlie Sheen. Sean Penn. These are all examples of repeated humiliations that in most cases could have been avoided altogether if cooler heads had prevailed. In a business case, a national photo developer chain made national news when it came to light that a rogue employee was copying and distributing customers’ personal photos. The situation was very bad, but the CEO was able to make it much better by preparing carefully and giving a calm and thoughtful interview on the air.
- Take a thoughtful approach. Get expert counsel (quickly) and consider all the ramifications of your approach. Who will be affected by your response? Customers. Employees. Shareholders. Competitors. Injured parties. Ensure you have outlined a plan of actions that takes each of these sectors into account. Think about how the plan will play out in 5 days, in 5 months, and in 5 years. Today’s embarrassment could be tomorrow’s victory if you handle the situation with care and with the broader perspective in mind.
- Don’t lash out. No good can come of a public castigation of others. A public explosion will only invite further argument from the other parties and will result in additional bad press.
- Don’t be sarcastic. No matter how clever, your acerbic remarks will seldom play well in the press (although they do attract quotes and will tend to make for big headlines). Shark Tank entrepreneur Mark Cuban is famous for this strategy. So is SCOTTEVEST CEO Scott Jordan, who has sparred with Cuban in multiple pieces of press. For some visible figures, aggressive arguments are a form of an art. For the rest of us, it’s best to leave the derisive remarks and behavior alone.
- Don’t try to cover it up. There are plenty of examples in every public sector of situational cover-ups making the original embarrassment worse. It is better to consider the most appropriate and thoughtful way of telling the truth than to even consider the possibility of masking or covering up a mistake. In most humiliations, it is better to take your lumps and swallow the medicine early in order to get as quickly as possible to the point you are able to repair and move on.
Avoid Public Bullying
The topic of public bullying has been on my own mind since the recent reflective article in Vanity Fair by Lewinsky (the infamous intern paramour of former President Bill Clinton). Her article struck a chord. She said that in part, the story of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who was filmed kissing another man and ultimately committed suicide brought back terrible memories that gave her the courage to step forward and speak.
Now 40 years old and substantially wiser than the 21-22 year old girl who’d gotten caught up in the scandal, she admitted to having contemplated suicide herself in the aftermath of her humiliation. I found her words interesting. Admittedly, in the seasons following the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, it is hard to deny that in many respects, society had behaved as abysmally as the players involved.
Late Show Host David Letterman (no stranger to embarrassing press of his own) has publicly expressed his regret for making so much fun of Lewinsky’s mistakes.
As readers and consumers, we can demand greater sensitivity to human mistakes in the press. As journalists (me among them) we can make the effort to cite and report the situations that are relevant to a story, but we can leave the unrelated and far distant mistakes an individual has made in the past. Bullying authority Jeanie Cisco-Meth (author of Bully Proofing You) speaks and advocates for building increased confidence and self-awareness in youth and adults to reduce the occurrence of unnecessary negative press and the behaviors that can make it hard for individuals who’ve experienced bad press to move on.
And yes, it is possible to recover from humiliation with eventual grace. Here’s how Director Michael Bay survived his embarrassing day: After the press and video field day had washed over him, he wrote a blog post about the event. He didn’t go so far as to offer up an apology, but he managed to redeem his reputation (and his responsibility to Samsung) like this:
“Wow! I just embarrassed myself at CES – I was about to speak for Samsung for this awesome Curved 105-inch UHD TV. I rarely lend my name to any products, but this one is just stellar. I got so excited to talk, that I skipped over the Exec VP’s intro line and then the teleprompter got lost. Then the prompter went up and down – then I walked off. I guess live shows aren’t my thing. But I’m doing a special curved screen experience with Samsung and Transformers 4 footage that will be traveling around the world.”
In another case, the words Justin Timberlake uttered after the 2004 Super Bowl costume fiasco – wardrobe malfunction – are now in the dictionary and have officially entered the public vernacular. His career has survived. (And so has Janet Jackson’s, the performer whose breast was exposed.) Perhaps Monica Lewinsky will have a career as a journalist, or even as an advocate for greater public sensitivity towards teens and young adults when highly visible mistakes have occurred.
But regardless of all else, keep these thoughts in mind – 1) Someone else is sure to step up and take the next embarrassing headline within the next several weeks, months or days, and 2) Now that it’s happened, it’s over with. Like the famous song from The Titanic movie, your heart (and your life) will go on.