TCS Daily

2006: Year of the Apology

By Fraser Seitel - February 2, 2006 12:00 AM

"Back comes Oprah! Back comes Oprah! Back Comes Oprah!"

In a comeback off the canvas that would have driven Howard Cosell cockeyed, the queen of American television last week redeemed her reputation with a blistering knockout of contemptible new-millionaire author James Frey, that had the nation's leading journalists positively cooing.

Oprah Winfrey's non-stop demolition of Frey, her lying former book club selectee, and her simultaneous flaying of Nan Talese, the author's Doubleday editor, proved great theater.

But what really impressed the pandering parade of sycophants from The New York Times and Washington Post, who also appeared on the show, was Oprah's willingness to "apologize" for coming to Frey's defense in the first place.

"It was a huge relief......Oprah admitting her flawed judgment and rescuing her reputation," gushed Times columnist Maureen Dowd, before launching into her obligatory Bush bashing.

"I just want to tip my hat to you........for standing up and saying you were wrong. Takes a lot of courage," added Post columnist Richard Cohen.

Neither Ms. Dowd nor Mr. Cohen raised the possibility that Ms. Winfrey was shamed into apologizing by the withering attack she received, after calling in to "Larry King Live" and defending the "essential truths" of the Frey book. Following that appearance, critics bashed Queen Oprah's respect for the "truth." Two weeks later, the daytime diva got the message.

Ms. Winfrey's mea culpa caused the editorial writers at the Times to conclude, "In a remarkable moment of television, Ms Winfrey did what we have so often waited for public figures to do; she admitted openly that she had made a mistake in supporting Mr. Frey."

As usual, the Times had it dead wrong.

Apology Avalanche

Admitting "I was wrong" has become standard operating procedure for public figures caught in crisis. This is a great victory for the practice of public relations.

For years, rather than following public relations counsel, public figures in the midst of scandals -- politicians, entertainers, athletes, and the like -- listened to their lawyers, who generally advised to "admit nothing, shut up, and let us handle this in court."

While such counsel may make sense sometimes -- depending most specifically on the extent to which the charge is true -- it is often the worst advice to follow. A celebrity in the public eye usually can't ignore his or her way to innocence. The situation often needs to be confronted.

The most recent example, of course, of lawyers delivering misguided public relations counsel to the ultimate detriment of the client was Martha Stewart. Had Stewart listened to public relations professionals, who would have told her to admit to lying to federal investigators and apologize, she wouldn't have lost her job, served time in the slammer, or torpedoed -- at least temporarily -- her reputation.

It often -- not always, but often -- constitutes the wisest public relations advice to apologize, do it quickly to stop the bleeding, and then demonstrate the sincerity of the apology with subsequent action.

Since Martha's jail term and contrary to what the Times believes, public figures in increasing numbers have heeded this public relations advice and engaged in a veritable avalanche of apologies.

Consider the early 2006 contrition crew:

  • Screw-loose preacher Pat Robertson, after suggesting that Ariel Sharon's stroke was "divine retribution" for Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, did an immediate apologetic about-face after hearing it from friend and foe alike, including the White House, which condemned the wild-eyed evangelist's rhetoric.

  • World Cup champion skier Bode Miller backed down quickly for his television interview comments about skiing and drinking. The often-obstinate skier humbly apologized for the "confusion and pain" he caused the skiing community. Probably a wise move, inasmuch as the loud mouth would have been booted from the Olympic team had he not shown contrition.

  • New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, he of the frequent foot-in-mouth malady, apologized for "my totally inappropriate" remarks in a Martin Luther King Day speech, in which he predicted that New Orleans would be a "chocolate" city once more and asserted that "God was mad at America."

  • Even New York Knicks' President Isaiah Thomas spurned his lawyers' advice, listening to public relations advisors to denounce a sexual harassment suit leveled against him. While Thomas said he "wasn't guilty" and therefore had nothing to apologize for, his rejection of his lawyers' "no comment" approach was the right call.

This recent spate of apologies suggests that high profile people and organizations are starting to listen to public relations counselors, where once they sought out lawyers.

Who will be the next beloved celebrity to ask for forgiveness?

The prediction here: Tim Russert.

Last week, Russert used his "Meet the Press" program as an infomercial for his friends, James Carville and Paul Begala, who used the air time to shamelessly plug their book, "Take It Back."

The new "blockbuster," apparently mostly written by the fiercely mediocre Begala but fronted by the much more charismatic Carville is little more than a concoction of warmed-over platitudes that reaches the (Are you ready for this?) startling conclusion that the "Democratic Party is lost and getting loster." Duh.

Russert's suspect shilling for the Carville-Begala diatribe coincided with an announcement from XM Satellite Radio that it had signed Mr. Carville to co-host a weekly sports talk show with a Boston College student named, coincidentally enough, Luke Russert, the son got it.

Stay tuned for the apology.

Fraser P. Seitel, managing partner of Emerald Partners communications consultancy, is author of The Practice of Public Relations, now in its ninth edition.


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