What PR Pros Can Learn From Justin Bieber’s Apology

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 3, 2014 – 6:02 am

Earlier this week, video surfaced from five years ago of a then 15-year-old Justin Bieber telling a racist joke. If you have the stomach for such things, the video is below:

15-Year-Old Justin Bieber Tells Racist Joke – Watch More Celebrity Videos or Subscribe

 

(For those who can’t access the video, Bieber’s “joke” asked, “Why are black people afraid of chain saws?” The punchline, delivered in the cadence of a chainsaw, was, “Run, nigger, nigger, nigger.”)

According to the gossip site TMZ, Bieber knew “his own photog was in the room and rolling.” More surprisingly, TMZ exercised some editorial restraint in this case:

“TMZ got this video 4 years ago but we decided not to post it … in large part because he was 15 and immediately told his friends what he did was stupid.  People connected with Bieber say one African American was present at the time he told the joke.” 

I respect TMZ’s restraint. Racism is too often an insidious force in our country, but I’m not sure targeting teenagers for international condemnation is the best cure. Even TMZ decided to handle this case, in which a minor was involved, differently than it would the public racism of adult stars Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, and Donald Sterling, among others. But whether or not this should be news is irrelevant—it did make news, and Bieber’s team knew it had to respond.

Justin Bieber TMZ

Here’s the statement Bieber released to TMZ:

“As a kid, I didn’t understand the power of certain words and how they can hurt. I thought it was ok to repeat hurtful words and jokes, but didn’t realize at the time that it wasn’t funny and that in fact my actions were continuing the ignorance.

Thanks to friends and family I learned from my mistakes and grew up and apologized for those wrongs. Now that these mistakes from the past have become public I need to apologize again to all those I have offended. I’m very sorry. I take my friendships with people of all cultures very seriously and I apologize for offending or hurting anyone with my childish and inexcusable mistake. I was a kid then and I am a man now who knows my responsibility to the world and to not make that mistake again.

Ignorance has no place in our society and I hope the sharing of my faults can prevent others from making the same mistake in the future. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say but telling the truth is always what’s right. Five years ago I made a reckless and immature mistake and I’m grateful to those close to me who helped me learn those lessons as a young man. Once again….I’m sorry.”

As PR apologies go, that’s about as good as it gets. Bieber made no excuses, took full responsibility for his actions, apologized, and promised to do better. His apology offers a good template to corporate executives, politicians, and other public figures who find themselves in trouble.

There’s only one part of this apology that’s tough to accept: Bieber’s assertion that “I was a kid then and I am a man now who knows my responsibility to the world.” That line would have more credibility if not for his recent arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence while drag racing (among several other unrelated infractions).

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Turkish Prime Minister’s Cold Response to Mining Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 19, 2014 – 12:02 am

301 workers were killed last week after a massive mining accident in western Turkey. The tragedy is Turkey’s worst mining disaster ever, and it appears to be the deadliest mining accident worldwide in more than 50 years.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Instanbul to protest the government, which many people say is to blame for allowing the poor mining safety conditions that led to the accident. 

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan did a few things right in his response. He visited the site, comforted victims, and, according to The Telegraph, he “promised the tragedy would be investigated to its ‘smallest detail’ and that ‘no negligence will be ignored.’”

But then he violated a basic rule of crisis communications that must be adhered to when fatalities are involved.

Turkey Prime Minister

Erdogan (pictured above) sought to place the tragedy in a larger context, dismissing mining accidents as “ordinary things.” He became “defensive when asked whether sufficient precautions had been in place at the mine,” according to The Telegraph

“’Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It’s not like these don’t happen elsewhere in the world,’ he said, reeling off a list of global mining accidents since 1862.”

As reader Robert Durand wrote when sending me this story, parties involved in these incidents should “never attempt to put a tragedy in perspective, especially as events are still unfolding.”

He’s right. Context is not what’s needed during moments of crisis. What’s required is understanding, sympathy, and most importantly, a commitment to reducing the likelihood of similar problems in the future. (Erdogan and his aides also made several other mistakes.)

I offered a template to spokespersons confronting these types of situations in an earlier post titled “One is One Too Many.” In this case, Erdogan is unable to promise that mining accidents won’t happen in Turkey again; the dangerous nature of the work almost guarantees they will. But he would have been better served with a straightforward statement without any defensiveness:

“One mining death is excruciating; hundreds are unbearable. We may never be able to eliminate mining accidents altogether, but I will do everything in my power to reduce the likelihood of this type of mining accident from ever occurring again.”

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Donald Sterling’s Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Apology

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 12, 2014 – 3:52 pm

Scroll down for two updates, including a rather jaw-dropping video.

Donald Sterling, the disgraced owner of the L.A. Clippers who was caught making racist remarks on audiotape last month, attempted to apologize during an interview with Anderson Cooper that will air on CNN tonight (excerpts have already been released).

Someone should tell Sterling that apologies are supposed to make things better, not worse.

Sterling, you might remember, instructed his girlfriend not to bring black people to his basketball games. “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” the 80-year-old told his 31-year-old girlfriend. “Do you have to?”

I wouldn’t have advised Mr. Sterling to proceed with the interview in the first place. If he insisted, I would have made clear that he had only one main message: “I said some horrible things, I have some outdated beliefs, and I hurt a lot of people. I am deeply sorry to everyone who I hurt. I will spend every one of my remaining days on this earth trying to be a better man and do some good.”

Well, that would have been the sensible approach. Instead, Mr. Sterling dug an even deeper hole for himself, offering the worst high-profile public apology since Paula Deen. Here are a few things he did wrong:

1. He Played The Victim

Mr. Sterling blamed his ex-girlfriend for “baiting” him into making his comments: “I don’t know why the girl had me say those things.” Sorry to break it to you, Mr. Sterling, but she didn’t. She may have been laying a trap for you—but you voluntarily jumped into it and created a mess of your own making. If you don’t think racist thoughts, no trap can make you suddenly spout them.

2. He Offered a Conditional Apology

When asked whether he had apologized to Magic Johnson (Sterling had instructed his girlfriend not to bring him to basketball games), Sterling said, “If I said anything wrong, I’m sorry.” If? There’s no redemption without confession. He’s clueless.

Donald Sterling Anderson Cooper

3. He Attacked Magic Johnson…Again!

Out of everything in the interview excerpts, Sterling’s comments about a target of his original invective—Magic Johnson—was absolutely jaw-dropping: “Has he done everything he could to help minorities? I don’t think so…I just don’t think he is a good example for the children of Los Angeles.” What Mr. Sterling thinks he can gain by attacking a widely respected African American man is baffling. With those comments, Sterling reinforced his image as an out-of-touch man clinging to long-buried ideas. 

4. He’s Aiming For The Wrong Audience

Sterling is right that the team owners will ultimately cast the vote that decides his fate: “The people who are going to decide my fate, I think, are not the media, not the player’s union, but the NBA [owners].” But he seems not to understand that their votes will be swayed, in large measure, by public and player sentiment. It’s probably too late to sway them anyway—but slighting critical stakeholders will only add 500 pounds to his already Herculean lift.

A JAW-DROPPING UPDATE: May 12, 2014, 8:42 p.m.

It turns out that CNN didn’t include the most jaw-dropping moment of the interview in the advance excerpts. Speaking about why he believed Magic Johnson isn’t a role model for kids, Donald Sterling said: “That he would go do what he did and get AIDS, I mean, come on.” (Remember: that was in 1991.)

Sterling’s dismissive sneering toward Magic Johnson didn’t end there. He blasted Johnson by saying, “He acts so holy. I mean, he made love to every girl in every city in America, and he has AIDS.” He culminated that rant by accusing Johnson of not doing enough to help the black community: “He doesn’t do anything.”

Sterling then said something incredibly inflammatory, claiming that Jews lend money to other Jews to develop businesses but that African Americans d0n’t do the same. “Jews, when they get successful, they will help their people. And some of the African Americans, maybe I’ll get in trouble again, they don’t want to help anybody.” (That was something he said voluntarily in an interview apologizing for racism!) To top things off, Sterling accused Anderson Cooper of being a bigger racist than he is.

In writing this blog for four years, I’ve never seen someone blow an apology this badly.

In being a professional media trainer for more than a decade, I’ve never seen someone blow an apology this badly.

There’s no amount of hyperbole that could overstate how awful this was. If Mr. Sterling thought this interview was going to rehabilitate him, he’s delusional.

UPDATE: May 12, 2014, 9:16 p.m.

I have a feeling that media trainers and crisis communications professionals will be dissecting this interview for years. But one other critical takeaway can be drawn now.

Sterling’s goal for this interview should have been to apologize sincerely and unreservedly to everyone he hurt. That’s it. There can be no forgiveness before contrition.

Instead, Sterling’s lack of discipline allowed personal animus to rule the day. Magic Johnson was tangential to this story. Yes, Donald Sterling said on tape that he didn’t want Magic Johnson coming to his games —but all Sterling had to do now was say, “That was a dumb thing to say, and I’m sorry.”

Sometimes people scoff at the idea of PR pros or attorneys sitting in with clients during these types of interviews. Sterling didn’t have one. Their value likely seems a lot clearer now.

What did you think of this interview? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Review: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s Press Conference

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 29, 2014 – 2:53 pm

That’s leadership.

Adam Silver, who became NBA commissioner just three months ago, was handed a major controversy when L.A. Clippers team owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape late last week making racist comments. 

(You can catch up on the story here.)  

When the tapes became public on Saturday, many people were quick to react. Players demanded Sterling’s exit from the league, fans expressed outrage, and sponsors canceled their contracts with the Clippers.

Adam Silver

All eyes turned to the NBA commissioner, wondering how he would handle the situation. The commissioner pledged to take action swiftly—and he did. He worked quickly to authenticate the tapes and gain the support of other league owners.

And this afternoon, he banned Mr. Sterling from the NBA for life.

That may have seemed like an obvious decision to make, but it was more complicated than it appeared. For example, Dallas Mavericks Owner Mark Cuban seemed to oppose a lifetime ban due to the “slippery slope” such a precedent would set. Other critics also wondered if the comments—which were made in private to a romantic partner—should have led to his removal as a team owner.

I understand those concerns, but I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the NBA’s handling of this incident. The League’s crisis management worked, and the NBA did almost everything right in terms of communicating with the press. The press conference itself was also handled well: A press handler, presumably an NBA staffer, selected the questioners and counted down when they would take only two more questions. Press conferences rarely run as smoothly.

I was particularly impressed by Silver’s reaction when a reporter asked him if he felt any special pain since he, like Sterling, is Jewish. I made a decision as a human being, Silver said, refusing to wallow in his personal feelings and make this incident about him. 

Silver was handed a high-profile test that would determine whether or not he would establish himself as a leader. He passed with flying colors.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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April 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 27, 2014 – 11:34 am

Don’t bring black people to my basketball games.

That’s the message 80-year-old Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling allegedly delivered to his 20-something girlfriend on a tape that was leaked on the gossip website TMZ yesterday. Among other statements, the man on the tape, purportedly Sterling, says:

It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?” 

“You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want.  The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”

“Don’t put [NBA legend Magic Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me.  And don’t bring him to my games.”

Clippers Owner Donald Sterling to GF – Don’t Bring Black People to My Games, Including Magic Johnson – Watch More Celebrity Videos or Subscribe

 

I use the term “allegedly” because the tape hasn’t been formally authenticated as of this writing. But Sterling’s weak response, released to TMZ by the Clippers organization, suggests he’s guilty as charged:

“We have heard the tape on TMZ Sports.  We do not know if it is legitimate or if it has been altered.”

The statement goes on … “We do know that the woman on the tape — who we believe released it to TMZ Sports — is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the Sterling family, alleging that she embezzled more than $1.8 million, who told Mr. Sterling that she would ‘get even.’”

And the statement goes on, “Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings. It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life.”

And there’s this: “He feels terrible that such sentiments are being attributed to him and apologizes to anyone who might have been hurt by them.”

That’s not even close to a denial.

If he hadn’t uttered racist sentiments, it would have been easy to state that the tape was illegitimate. The only way the legitimacy of the tape could even be called into question is if it was possible that Sterling had uttered such statements. Sterling’s non-denial reminds me of Anthony Weiner’s ridiculous non-denial, in which he said he couldn’t say “with certitude” that a lewd tweet was of him in his underwear.

The organization’s attempt to question the motives of the leaker is even more pathetic given that it wasn’t accompanied by a strong denial. This is a mushy statement, bordering on a smear, that is unlikely to give an iota of comfort to even Sterling’s most ardent supporters.

Donald Sterling

In our media training courses, executives often ask how they can avoid being the victims of furtively taped conversations. My answer? You can’t. Your job is to avoid saying incendiary things that can be used against you, even in conversations you regard as private. In this case, Sterling may have been set up by his much younger girlfriend—but Sterling is solely to blame for the consequences, as no one forced him to share such racist views.

That leads to the cost of this mistake. Many people in the NBA are already calling for Sterling to lose his team. Given the NBA’s constitution, that may not be easy (a long suspension that essentially removes day-to-day control from Sterling may be more likely). But there are many other ways for Sterling to pay for this mistake—through fan boycotts, players who refuse to play for the Clippers, and diminished brand equity and reputation.

Assuming this tape will be authenticated, Sterling will have turned himself into a pariah who will go down in the annals of sports history alongside other infamous bigots including Marge Schott, Jimmy The Greek, and Al Campanis.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Vance McAllister’s Savvy Crisis Communications

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 9, 2014 – 1:04 pm

Married Louisiana Congressman Vance McAllister was caught on surveillance video this week passionately kissing a woman at his local office.

The woman, Melissa Anne Hixon Peacock, was a longtime friend and donor to McAllister’s campaign. Making matters more complicated, the woman’s husband was also a friend and contributor to  McAllister’s campaign; Mr. Peacock told CNN that this incident has “wrecked his life.”  

Even worse, Ms. Peacock was on McAllister’s payroll and was terminated after the video became public.

The Republican freshman has vowed to remain in office, but the messy incident has remained in the news, threatening his young political career.

According to CBS News, McAllister is “reportedly asking for an FBI investigation into the source of the leaked security footage.”

A friend and trusted colleague emailed me today and said, “This seems like a bad idea to me. You cheated on your wife and kids, don’t ask the FBI to find the person who caught you doing it.” 

I understand where he’s coming from, but I disagree on this one. Rep. McAllister is taking a page out of two smart crisis management playbooks: Don Draper’s and David Letterman’s.

Vance McAllister

Don Draper, the fictional MadMen anti-hero, famously said, “If you don’t like what is being said, then change the conversation.” McAllister’s request may help shift at least part of the storyline from his steamy kisses onto the person who leaked the footage.

As for David Letterman, he paid a relatively small public price after news of his affair with a staffer became public. He benefited from having a bad guy in the story who was worse than he was—a blackmailer—and that blackmailer took a much worse media drubbing.

I wish McAllister’s crisis management strategy was to apologize, resign, and retreat from public life. But if his goal is to remain in office, his “find the leaker” strategy may help.

UPDATE, April 9, 2014, 5:40pm

Well, so much for that. According to Politico, Rep. McAllister’s staff said the congressman would no longer pursue an investigation into the leaker. It looks like he will have little to hide behind other than the de rigueur “I have let my family down and will try to do better” line.

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It Looks Like General Motors Failed The SNL Test

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 6, 2014 – 11:12 am

General Motors CEO Mary Barra testified to Congress this week regarding her company’s delay in recalling faulty vehicles that are responsible for at least 13 deaths.

Ms. Barra is new to her position—she became CEO less than three months ago—and she’s trying to usher in a new era of transparency. But as last night’s Saturday Night Live noted, the multiple evasions during her testimony won’t help her in that effort.

SNL often reflects—or sets—national sentiment. To be their target in an opening sketch is not going to help GM’s crisis management efforts at all

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The President Who Urinated In His Pants While Speaking

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 19, 2014 – 4:40 pm

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos urinated in his pants while delivering a speech on Sunday. 

The 62-year-old—a prostate cancer survivor—was launching his re-election campaign when a wet spot began to form in the front of his trousers.   

Incontinence is a common but unfortunate side effect of prostate cancer surgery. According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, “About 5 to 10 percent of all men who undergo prostate surgery experience mild but permanent stress incontinence, in which a small amount of urine passes while coughing, laughing, or exercising.”

Nonetheless, some critics are mocking Mr. Santos for what had to be a mortifying incident.

While such mocking is inappropriate, cruel, and inhumane, the incident did lead to a reasonable question that Mr. Santos would have to address: Is he healthy enough to serve another term?

Juan Manuel Santos Urine

To his credit, President Santos reacted quickly. He delivered a joint press statement alongside his physician and released the same statement in print. 

“Just as soon as this episode occurred, which was obviously quite uncomfortable for me and my family, they started sending the video showing what had happened to me around on the Internet, along with commentaries that were not only offensive but frankly, cruel, following something that could happen to any human being.

But now they are insinuating that I am ill and that therefore I am not prepared to occupy the presidency for four more years.

I want to make it clear, it is not true: I am in perfect health….

For my part, I would like to thank all Colombians who have expressed their understanding and good wishes.

And I must say also that it is very sad, very disappointing, that politics would result from this personal and human situation that could have happened to anyone.”

(The full transcript appears in the comments section below)

President Santos made the right choice by delivering an in-person statement. His tone was direct and mature, and he managed to retain his integrity while discussing a humiliating moment. He scored points simply by showing up and addressing the issue—which, in many cases, helps to diminish the shelf life of a media frenzy.

I’m not sure what the media landscape in Colombia looks like. If this had happened to an American politician, I’d add only one additional crisis management technique: humor. For example, I might advise a politician to accept an invitation to The Tonight Show, where he could exhibit his humanity and humor with a simple line delivered with a smile, such as: “Well, I’ve had better days.”

Mr. Santos should consider three additional precautions: wearing absorbent undergarments (if he’s not already), wearing darker-colored pants, and speaking from behind a full lectern.

I’d like to thank Deborah Brody, a bilingual, D.C.-area marketing communications pro, who transcribed Mr. Santos’s quotes into English. I hope you’ll return the favor by checking out her terrific English-language blog.

Thanks, also, to reader @ConsueCorrales for bringing this story to my attention.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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