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The Sorry State of Media Mea Culpas, From Spacey to Halperin

Do statements of apology ever actually help matters in crisis management?

Like a snowball rolling down a hill, what started off a scandal for Harvey Weinstein alone has gained frightening size and speed as many more prominent men in the media industry face accusations of sexual harassment.

It’s a bitter pill for Hollywood to swallow, and one that leaves a sour aftertaste as well thanks to something that seems to follow virtually every flurry of allegations: the statement of apology.

From Kevin Spacey to Mark Halperin to Leon Wieseltier, we are seeing this pro forma exercise in damage control utilized again and again with depressing regularity. And each time it’s enough to make you wonder why these people and their ill-informed advisors seem to be almost going out of their way to make matters worse.

Spacey was particular appalling. Put aside the fact he had the temerity to suggest he wasn’t actually sure what happened because he may have been drunk. What really galled was his blatantly transparent attempt to divert attention to the crime by making public for the first time that he is gay. Judging from the outcry on social media and beyond, dangling a red herring didn’t work.

Halperin, who lost multiple gigs at NBC News, HBO and Showtime over his own misadventures, seemed similarly misguided. “I now understand from these accounts that my behavior was inappropriate and caused others pain,” he wrote in his first statement.

“I now understand” has a pretty simple subtext: I previously didn’t understand that what I did was wrong. Even if Halperin was so obtuse that he truly didn’t grasp that his serial predations were somehow wrong, why would he spell that out in a statement?

To make matters worse, Halperin issued a second, lengthier statement days later in which he attempted to mitigate his misdeeds suggesting that his behavior was long in the past. And yet hours later, another report emerged that made clear he had behaved inappropriately several years ago.

You might expect better from an accomplished wordsmith like Wieseltier, the literary lion tossed from a new gig at the Emerson Collective over more such allegations. Surely he understood the nuance implied in using language like, “I am ashamed to know that I made any of them feel demeaned and disrespected. I assure them I will not waste this reckoning.”

What he’s essentially saying here is that it required the women actually stepping forward to instill him with a sense of shame regarding his actions.

You would presume all these accused men at least have enough sense to hire crisis-management experts with enough sense to know how to best word these statements in a way that minimizes the potential blowback. Apparently not.

But it’s less what is being said and more how it’s being said. In an age when a disgraced individual could either upload a video to YouTube or sit for a TV interview in little time, there is something automatically off-putting about a written statement.

Cynical as it sounds, it’s relatively easy to put words on paper if you can hire someone else to write those words. The subtext of a written message is, I don’t have the ability to convey sincerity directly.

That said, let’s be honest: There’s really nothing these people can say in these statements that could somehow make matters better. Still, maybe the crisis-PR world is having a crisis of its own if it can’t see that for themselves.

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