By David Oates, APR, Founder and President, Stalwart Communications
Whether you’re a fan of the conservative talk show host or not, one thing’s for certain; he really stepped in it last month. He backed himself into a corner, tried to fight his way out and ultimately cried “Uncle” only after sponsors began dropping support for his program en masse.
Every PR practitioner that I’ve spoken to about his vicious verbal attacks on a Georgetown law student who testified to Congressional Democrats favoring the Obama Administration’s proposed healthcare policy on contraceptives had the same reaction. They condemned it in the strongest terms, even if they don’t necessarily agree with the President’s stance. My colleagues saw no place for such a diatribe. Yet there was Rush, defending his words days later only to finally issue an apology on Saturday.
Some would conclude that Limbaugh finally righted a wrong by saying he was sorry for his choice of language. As a PR professional, I think he’s still up a big, dirty creek. I doubt few really believe the sincerity of his apology. No one would be able to downplay the repeated usage of terms like “slut” to someone by simply following up with “my bad.” For Rush to have a shot at being respected by sponsors and listeners again, he’s going to have to go further than that. Much further.
If I was his publicist, I would start with making him apologize in person to the law student he defamed, then follow up with a press conference on the footsteps of Georgetown University to do the same in public. From there, I would have Rush make a sizable contribution to a battered women’s shelter in New York, his current residence, and set up some time for him to volunteer at the facility in some capacity. Actions like this will be the only way Limbaugh can convince the general public that he’s truly contrite.
There’s a terrific lesson for the rest of us here; an official statement isn’t enough to get the public back on your side. While I doubt most of us would have ranted on like Limbaugh did, we’ve all said things that, in hindsight, we wish we could have taken back. It’s the nature of our business. When we recant, though, we must be sincere and include the following elements:
- A full, genuine and unequivocal apology given in person to the media and the offending parties by the individual who made the initial comments; not through some spokesperson (though make sure you’re in the room). While the Corporate Communications head may opt to not have the person take questions, the message must be delivered live and in living color.
- A full account for how else the person will make amends. This may require a personal contribution, volunteer hours, inclusion in subsequent discussions or all of the above. Follow through is key here, and the public must be made aware of how the individual is trying to repair the damage their words created.
- An emphasis on how this incident is not in line with the organization’s core values. Be sure to bring home the main messages of the organization to which the person in question represents and why their actions are contrary to its core values.
Anything short of a full apology and concerted efforts to rectify the situation will look insincere and cause even greater harm than before. PR professionals take note – the genie won’t go back in the box. The only thing you can do is try to make peace with it.
About the author: David Oates, APR, is the Founder and President of Stalwart Communications, a full service, Pay-on-Performance Marketing and PR firm in San Diego. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Stalwartcom.