Me Bad: Six Not-Easy Steps to Get Me Out of the Mess I Caused
How to ruin a life, legacy, career, and marriage in an instant? That is what Representative Anthony Weiner did when he recently hit the send button on his Twitter account. Within a few days, good that he may have done became deeply discounted, as he tweeted pictures of himself across the internet.
The recent rash of scandalous behavior has left many people asking "What were they thinking?" What were they thinking when they committed their misbehavior and why did they think their subsequent explanations would make everything go away over time? Of course, each situation is different as to root causes, as well as how each tried to manage their way out of the morass. However, there are patterns of behavior that can be deduced as to the mindset and strategy employed to wishfully get them out of the mess they were in.
Like deer caught in the headlights, people who are suddenly exposed for deeds they have committed in private are usually not prepared to deal with the instant notoriety. They typically try to buy time by not commenting, deflecting to others, or making false or misleading statements. In many cases, attempts to cover up or deny turn out to be worse than the deeds themselves.
What lessons can be learned from how people have handled their attempts to regain lost favor, explain their behavior, and deal with their critics? Are there principles or axioms that seem to work or not work? What public confessions can somewhat restore or repair damaged reputations? When do attempts at "damage control" or "buying time" work against the offender?
Regardless of the status or circumstances of the actor, the outcome of the public discourse depends on two factors: perception and disclosure. They are flipsides of the same coin. What you say and how you do it affect what people think of you and your behavior. It determines whether the end result is chicken salad or lemonade, or something less. Perception and disclosure are psychological constructs that are useful in analyzing attempts to communicate to and persuade an audience to accept or understand a specific message.
There are many ways to explain the role perception plays in determining reactions people have to the foibles of public figures or to episodes that capture widespread attention. It begins when an incident is observed, reported, or expressed between two or more people or groups. The basic elements of the communication involves a Sender, a Message, a Receiver, and Feedback. For example:
The Sender sends a Message to the Receiver. Feedback from the Receiver confirms whether or not the Message was received with essentially the same meaning as intended. There are filters that both the Sender and Receiver have that determine choice of words (what they denote or connote). Perfect communication would exist if both the Sender and the Receiver possessed identical images, interpretations, and understandings of an event or the meaning of a message. In real life, this never happens. The best communication that can happen is like a concentric circle in which the degree of overlap is as near 100% as possible. The greater the overlap, the greater the understanding. Like the childhood parlor game, the message whispered into the first listener's ear is almost never a match with what the last person hears.
Perception occurs in stages: (1) stimulation, (2) organization, (3) interpretation-evaluation, (4) memory, and (5) recall. It begins with an event/message that is organized, interpreted, and evaluated based on the past experience, values, or idiosyncrasies of the beholder, observer, or receiver. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, people "read" into an event what they sense is like or different from what they recall having experienced before.
In the case of the miscreant, if the statements and behavior of the person conflict with the observer's values or don't "ring true" with what the observer would expect a person to do under the circumstances, there is a presumption of guilt, cover-up, or suspicion. Conversely, if a person appears to come clean, appear truly remorseful, and promise to make amends, the likelihood of forgiveness or reinstatement increases.
What to disclose, when to disclose, and how to disclose an explanation are also important determinants of the acceptability and believability of any attempt to regain lost credibility or status. A useful model for explaining the importance of disclosure is the Johari Window. The concept assumes that there are things known to individuals that are both public and private. Likewise, there are things that are not known to the individual and are unknown to both the individual and others. For example:
Using this model, a public confessional should increase the knowledge the public already knows or believes and reveal what is not known by the public. The act of "coming clean" should reveal information that explains the event's precursors and how they caused the behavior. The amount of disclosure will depend on its impact on innocent parties, legal liability, and a host of other considerations.
The areas of information that are blind to the individual and unknown to others may require an intense psychological evaluation of the individual. Some behavior is deeply rooted in the subconscious of the individual and requires professional help to address. Some root causes to behavior and unknown unknowns will remain hidden. To the extent these "unknown unknowns" cause behavior the "truth" may never be known. And yet, people's tendency to "fill in the blanks" based on their own experience and beliefs will determine their opinion of what really happened and why.
Public Confessions: A Recipe for Success
Realizing that perception and disclosure are important determinants of the outcomes of attempts to clear up sticky public relations situations, we can pose the following principles and some examples of how they have been applied.
1. Be Truthful
An example of violations of this principle is when Anthony Weiner accused others of hacking his Twitter account and sending out lewd pictures of him to young females. Even though he later apologized and admitted guilt, calls for his resignation from Congress eventually led him to resign.
2. Be Contrite
Showing genuine remorse and sorrow for what transpired is in the eye of the beholder, but it begins a process of rehabilitation or reinstatement. Root meanings of "contrite" meant to bruise, wear out, or grind, suggesting that one must experience some form of arduous decontamination. In a religious sense, contrition means to be remorseful for past sin and resolved to avoid future sin. Jimmy Swaggart publicly confessed to cohabitating with prostitutes in an emotionally charged television broadcast, only to repeat the offense three years later and confess a second time. He was eventually dismissed by his denomination and now operates a non-denominational church, which is a shadow of his previous footprint.
3. Walk the Talk
True confessions are more than theater. Words mean little. Actions speak louder. A good example of this is Charles Colson, of Watergate fame, who spent seven months in prison for obstructing justice. He converted to Christianity in 1973 and has since formed Prison Fellowship to promote prisoner rehabilitation and reform of the prison system in the United States. He has written over a dozen religious books and was received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President George W. Bush. The bottom line is that "walking the talk" is the most convincing proof that a transformation has occurred.
4. Stay Sober
Like a 12-Step Program, it is important to stay away from tempting situations and from the appearance of any wrongdoing, as in the past. Actress Lindsay Lohan and actor Robert Downey, Jr. have been repeat offenders and recidivists who lapsed and backslid into their old ways of doing drugs and hanging out with the same people who appeared to assist them with their habit. Downey appears to have rehabilitated himself and restored his stardom. Lohan's recovery remains in doubt at this time.
5. Exit the Stage
There comes a time when enough is enough. Unlike Charlie Sheen, ranting on television talk shows and charging admission to his "Violent Torpedo Tour," overstaying one's welcome prevents any restoration or recovery of lost status. It will dig a deeper hole. A trip to the Betty Ford Clinic or checking into Dr. Drew Pinsky's Celebrity Rehab Center is better than staying on center stage and being hounded by reporters who only want a quote or photo op, not your expiation.
6. Allow Time to Heal
Depending on the severity or gravity of the offense, it may be wise to go underground for a while. In the religious sense, this gives time for healing, atonement, and redemption. Being constantly in the public eye doesn't allow any time for rhetoric or animosity to subside long enough to enable the person to be rehabilitated and reoriented for new life course. Similar to what happened with Eliot Spitzer, former Governor of New York, who, after it became known that he had frequented prostitutes while married and still in office, resigned from office in March of 2008. He redeemed himself, first by writing articles in the press about corruption on Wall Street and later emerging nearly three years later as a commentator and program host on CNN.
Life the Morning After
Becoming whole again after a disastrous, self-inflicted life episode, is extremely difficult and a very tall order. As the old adage says, "he who represents himself in court has a fool for a client." The situations described above are too complex and are too deeply personal to enable a person to acquire insight into the root causes of the situation and still have the degree of objectivity or "third eye" to develop a communication strategy on the fly. Likewise, an attempt to stonewall or debate "what the meaning of is is" and be unable to "speak with certitude" that a picture is actually of one's own anatomy can be construed as insincere. Credibility is lost in the process and may never be regained. To rely on "handlers" or PR firms often suggests guilt and is construed as a concerted effort to deflect criticism until a more convenient time to deal with it.
Perception and Disclosure are very fragile concepts to employ in any attempt to explain, persuade, or convince others of a particular meaning.
Perceptions are affected by what people expect to see, not what is actually true. People form first impressions, so if one doesn't get it correct the first time, changing an initial impression is much more difficult. People value consistency of perceptions such that they tend to minimize inconsistent data. Stereotypes influence perceptions in such a way that associations are made with behavior of groups rather than individuals. Like "Occam's Razor," a simple, elegant explanation will most likely carry the day.
Disclosure is a similarly idiosyncratic concept that is highly dependent on the individual involved. Often the blind spots of the individual contribute to the misdeed and are the hidden or unknown causes. Consequently, any attempt to explain what happened to the public and evoke sympathy, understanding, or acceptance is virtually impossible to achieve, with or without professional help of any type. No amount of enlightenment will suffice to satisfy detractors or mitigate hyper-critics. But, if one becomes passive and allows others to characterize the situation in their terms, the result can be predictably devastating. The prudent course is to try to get a message out that is truthful, constructive, and pacifying.
No one in recent times has done a perfect job of complete restoration. The "Confessions of St. Augustine" were the result of a long process of introspection. He wrote a series of books that took years to complete in an attempt to communicate the meaning and purpose of his experiences that he had realized over his lifetime.
Efforts to expand areas of common knowledge about bad behavior often require painful disclosures and time for others to accept new revelations. Instant forgiveness tends to trivialize some offenses. Like penance and purgatory, there is a purification or perfection process that must be followed. The 6-Step Process outlined above is a guide. Rightly done, confessions and redemption can be cathartic and provide a verifiable cleansing for a clean slate for the rest of one's life.
"Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending." - Maria Robinson
"The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones."
Jay Partin, Ph.D. has served as Managing Director of the Diameter Group, Ltd., a management consulting firm, since 1988.
 Luft, J.; Ingham, H. (1955). "The Johari window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness." Proceedings of the Western Training Laboratory in Group Development (Los Angeles: UCLA).
 "Swaggart Plans to Step Down," New York Times, October 15, 1991.
 "Revisiting Watergate, Key Players: Charles Colson," The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/onpolitics/watergate/charles.html.
 "Lindsay Lohan Admits Cocaine Use, Three Rehab Visits," Emma Cox. Fox News, February 22, 2010.
 "Actor Downey Given 3 Years Probation," CNN, Paul Vercammen, Frank Buckley and Stanley Wilson, July 16, 2001.
 "Charlie Sheen, Deconstructed," New York Times, The Editors, March 5, 2011.
 "Spitzer Is Linked to Prostitution Ring," New York Times, Danny Hakim and William K. Rashbaum, March 10, 2008.
 Act 3, scene ii of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare.