I don’t know whether Academy Award winning actress Reese Witherspoon has read my latest book on crisis communications, but she has recently given an award-winning example of how to fess up and avoid turning an embarrassing situation into a full-blown media crisis, following a weekend incident when her husband was suspected of driving under the influence and pulled over in Atlanta. Witherspoon, a passenger in the car at the time, had been drinking (by her own admission) and got belligerent and disrespectful with the officer, which resulted in her being arrested for disorderly conduct.
But kudos to her for her actions and her words the next day when she sobered up. And for corporate America, pay attention and learn a thing or two about crisis communications.
In a chapter in my book called “Telling the Truth,” I examine the sad and bizarre case of disgraced former U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner.
Weiner, it will be remembered, was caught with his pants down – literally – texting (or sexting) photos of his crotch in an aroused state to young college-aged girls he knew only though Twitter. After being confronted with the story by a reporter, he tried for about a month to lie and worm his way out of it, but with each lie he only dug his grave deeper and deeper. The Los Angeles Times said he “responded by temporarily losing his mind, lying to the media…and spreading a bizarre conspiracy theory that an intercepted photo of his crotch might have been digitally altered.”
Eventually, as you know, he had nowhere else to run and finally confessed and resigned his seat in Congress. In the book I answer the question I’ve been asked several times before when I give speeches on the subject: Was there anything he could have said or done to keep his seat in Congress? And the answer is “Yes.”
As I wrote, “All he had to say, in so many words, was, ‘Yeah, I did it. It was an incredibly stupid, juvenile prank, and I am so embarrassed by this rash act. I apologize to my wife, my family, my constituents, and my colleagues in Congress. I assure you that it will never happen again. I ask for privacy while I undergo spiritual counseling and I try to make amends to my family.’”
But – and this is key – he would have had to have done it early! Putting truth on the bench to be called on only if deception strikes out is a crisis management and crisis communications error of potentially lethal proportions. Get out in front of the story, and do it fast, on your terms. If you own up to it fast, you take the wind out of the sails of those who would rally against you.
So what did Ms. Witherspoon do right? Instead of continuing her rant (“Do you know my name?” she challenged the unimpressed cop), the next day she tweeted this message:
“Out of respect for the ongoing legal situation, I cannot comment on everything that is being reported right now. But I do want to say, I clearly had one drink too many and I am deeply embarrassed about the things I said. It was definitely a scary situation and I was frightened for my husband, but that is no excuse. I was disrespectful to the officer who was just doing his job. I have nothing but respect for the police and I’m very sorry for my behavior.”
The story is already dying down. And there will be no residual chink in her A-list status.