Poor Trent Lott. The Mississippi Senator and the incoming Senate’s Republican leader is in the middle of a public relations nightmare. The Magnolia State’s most important political leader in decades is apologizing left and right and supporters, if he has any left, are keeping quiet. There is a lesson to be learned here.
Lott, as you may be aware, is currently in danger of losing his leadership position thanks to a questionable comment he made during a 100th birthday celebration for Senator Strom Thurmond. Lott, in an attempt to heap praise on Thurmond, gave the impression that he was in support of Thurmond’s past political view that segregation is a good thing. The backlash was slow to build and in fact, the traditional media treated the comments with indifference at first. But old wounds, some of which still fester, are slow to heal. The avalanche of bad press that has followed Lott’s comments two weeks ago would ruin most politicians and anyone in the public eye.
Lott has made more than one public apology, his latest coming Monday on “BET Tonight”. The appearance has done little to help Lott and if nothing else, has thrust prominent African-Americans in the spotlight to comment on Lott’s original comment. The avalanche is threatening to bury Lott, whose fate as Republican leader will be sealed during a Jan. 6 meeting of Republican Senators.
In examining Lott’s predicament, it’s safe to say that he and his team have made a number of mistakes. Let’s ignore the substance of his comments and concentrate solely on the actual problem: the public relations nightmare.
Lott was quick to apologize for his comments and admit his words may have been offensive. From a public relations perspective, that should have been the end of it. His initial statement on the matter should have been the only time he addressed the issue and when asked in the future about the incident he should have referred to his initial statement and left it at that.
Lott wishes it was that easy, but for someone in the spotlight, scandal or not, it never is. Still, it’s important to note that one apology will suffice. You may one day find yourself in a PR nightmare like this. Don’t laugh, you may think your client or company isn’t controversial, but just wait until someone gets slapped with a discrimination lawsuit or an offhand comment to a local reporter ends up being the lead item on the nightly news. The media, and the special interest groups and pundits, are always looking for a target. No matter how big or small, your client is a target because if you can make headlines with a press release, you can certainly make headlines by doing something stupid.
Public apologies must be firm, immediate and wide-ranging. You need to be prepared to handle the fact that the initial controversy will lead to further scrutiny. In Lott’s case, a week after his comments at Thurmond’s party, it was revealed that he made similar comments at a political rally over twenty years ago. His PR team should have taken a few moments and considered that Lott may have made such a comment and worded an apology as such:
“If in the past I have erred and made comments that appear to support policies that Mr. Thurmond has supported in the past, I apologize. My intent in these cases has been to praise a man who has been a political leader for our nation for over six decades…”
“If in the past” covers the immediate past and the distant past.
Lott has been trotted out in front of the press a number of times in the last week and had to repeat again and again the same apology. This causes a public image crisis. Ok, we get it, he’s sorry. But the media persists and Lott most likely just wants to disappear from the news. And he should. The only way to do this is by shutting up and standing by the original apology. Yes, silence will open him up to more criticism, but in the end, repeating the apology time and time again will not help your case. And “explaining yourself”, as Lott did on the BET show on Monday night, inevitably leads to more criticism.
Think about this situation as a personal relationship. When you and your spouse (or loved one) have a spat and you are wrong, do you apologize once and adamantly, making the point that you understand you have made an error; or do you continually apologize to the point that each apology opens up new avenues for problems and takes away from the power of your original apology?
The relationship between you, or your client, and the media is the same way. The media is bringing the message to the public and as the conduit has the ability to filter this message in many ways. The media will do this no matter what. They will use your apology and wrap it around twenty year old comments or offhand remarks. You can’t do anything about it, so why keep opening yourself up to the abuse?
When dealing with apologies, my policy has always been simple: apologize once and on my own terms. I have upset my own readers (on my website) in the past and I have always tackled the issue head on. I have issued my apology and stood by it. And then it was forgotten because someone else raised their ire.
In Lott’s case, as his PR man, I would have done a bit of research into Lott’s past to cover myself. I would have called a press conference and had my man issue a heartfelt public apology anticipating the questions that the media, public and special interest groups had prepared. And that would have been it. Let the talking heads have their day and respectfully tell them, “We understand your concerns. However, we stand by our original statement and will have no further to say on this issue. Thank you.”
While Lott’s problems are complicated and sensitive, they are also very basic. He is suffering through a humiliating public relations nightmare that could damage his career and hurt others (his political party, state, family, etc.). Apology after apology won’t change any of this and every time he apologizes he adds fuel to the fire. The best way for him to put that fire out is by sticking to his original apology and leave it at that. The meaning of “sorry” doesn’t change no matter how many times you say it.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.