Full disclosure: I make my living creating, enhancing and protecting brand reputations. That said, the ability of politicians and celebrities to reinvent themselves and make successful comebacks to public life never ceases to amaze me.
The country - and Washington, DC as a microcosm - have short memories. Despite the fact that the internet age means that nothing is ever truly forgotten (although you can pay companies tens of thousands of dollars to attempt to push content to a search engine's second page), people in the public eye are often quite successful in creating a comeback that not only causes scandals of the past to disappear, but catapults them into greater stardom.
So how do these individuals get a second chance?
Step 1: Introspection and time to reflect - The first thing a crisis communications professional will advise someone in public life facing a scandal is to retreat into their private life. They will warn not to speak to media on the emotional heels of an incident. You'll often see someone - like Senator David Vitter after being tied to an escort service - ask for privacy as he reflects or makes amends with loved ones, spiritual advisers, medical professionals, [insert support system]... Senator Vitter was re-elected following his scandal and is leading the polls to become the next Governor of Louisiana.
Step 2: Blame the media - Hollywood blames the paparazzi; Washington blames the 24-hour news cycle. Arguably, if you weren't doing something wrong, neither would catch you doing it. That said, many individuals in the public eye rely on the tried and true deflection of responsibility by claiming that media obsession is stoking untrue rumors. For Congressman Michael Grimm, while threatening a reporter didn't make his criminal issues go away, it did get him re-elected.
Step 3: Unadulterated apology - As multiple professional athletes have demonstrated, personal failures can be forgiven as long as players can make the first down, or complete the pass. Ray Rice has taken time, he's reflected, he's deflected, and now, finally he has apologized for assaulting his partner. One might argue that the only person he owes an apology to is his wife. But in reality, he has to show contrition to make it easier for another team to hire him, and thus has now apologized to not only his team and its leadership, but an entire city.
Step 4: Humility during exclusive interview (most often on television) - Reese Witherspoon has long held a place in the public's heart. So when she was arrested for disorderly conduct and caught on video being aggressive and obnoxious to a police officer - "Do you know who I am?!" - the facade cracked. Suddenly America's sweetheart was human. When Witherspoon re-entered public life, she was humbled and vulnerable, on Good Morning America. Now she's an Oscar nominee.
These individuals may not have been convicted of anything, but they had been found guilty in the court of public opinion for their behavior. Their actions destroyed the public fantasy that their communications teams had created. Thus, they had to carefully and patiently plot their comeback.
We may be at the very beginning stages of seeing these steps repeated in another high-profile matter. Brian Williams, who has become one of the most beloved and watched journalists on television, is in the midst of an investigation that may be far from over. He is taking a break, albeit not one of his own choosing. While I think it will be more difficult for a charter member of the media to blame it, only time will tell whether that will be part of the comeback strategy. But you can rest assured that as he ponders his return to public life, it will surely include an exclusive interview and yet another public apology.
As sure as he brought his current issues on himself, it will be up to Williams to determine the path his comeback will take, and up to him to determine when it will begin.
But if history is any indication, it's his for the taking.