I have a client who was fond of saying that he had "made it in D.C." once he'd gone through his first media firestorm. While he was using the humor to mask his own terror at the personal and professional experience he was undergoing, he wasn't far off. In some sense, involvement in a matter worthy of media attention suggests an individual is involved in something of significance, or that they as an individual has become significant. But that is small consolation when one's actions or behavior become the subject of media attention, scrutiny - and devastating criticism.
News flash: people screw up. Sometimes the screw-up is big, sometimes it's relatively small. People who spend time in front of news cameras tend to have very public screw-ups. While not every screw-up lands on the AP wire, those that do can alter a person's personal, professional and political career forever. In the age of digital media, Google, Bing and other search engines do not forget. Years - and sometimes decades - of accomplishment or public service can still be buried under one bad story, even if it's later retracted, corrected, or found to be without merit.
In the past month, a high-profile sports commentator was suspended for insensitive comments about domestic violence. A well-known beltway journalist was fired for plagiarism. Half a dozen actors gave answers in news interviews that they will come to regret.
These are not criminal offenses. But each of these individuals has been sentenced nonetheless.
Individuals who are battered by media firestorms cannot spend the years afterwards hiding under blankets. So the question becomes, how and when do people who are the subjects of such firestorms wade back into the water? Each has a choice - embrace the episode as a defining moment in their personal history; or work to deflect it and put it behind them. Below are some factors for individuals to consider who want to move on after the storm subsides:
First, analyze why you are re-entering the fray. Sometimes, individuals are dying to jump back in the public sphere to prove that they have survived or to attempt to defend their legacy. Doing this can provoke antagonists to dredge up the episode, re-analyze it (this is the 24 hour news cycle), and further revive the drama that the individual is trying to get beyond. Don't create false urgency about re-entering the public arena - think strategically about why this is the moment to do so.
Second, be prepared. Most individuals who have experienced a storm NEVER fully leave it behind. Re-engaging with media and public audiences will always put an individual back in a position of vulnerability. Do not step back on to the stage without having a short and sweet answer to respond to the previous issue that cased your exit from the public stage. For most (smart) individuals, that statement will include an apology. The fastest way to put scandal behind you is to 1) apologize; 2) take responsibility; and 3) make clear that it will never occur again. Failure to embrace these steps may only prolong the pain the episode will cause.
Third, don't jump into the deep end. Find a reason to publicly re-engage that, if possible, is not related to the issue that got you in trouble in the first place. Focus your energy on the new topic, product or initiative you are announcing. Convincing stakeholders that an embarrassing episode is old news helps if you act like it as well. Slowly re-engage so you and your team have a sense of the environment you're stepping into, and most importantly the extent of the media's appetite to revisit the past.
While it is true that the internet lives forever, so does an individual's legacy. While the public may act as judge and jury during a media firestorm, the person who has been through the storm has the ability to chart his or her path to redemption. How someone bounces back after being knocked down says as much, if not more, about their character than anything else.