The “Temporary Insanity” PR Apology

“Nevermind.”

That famous punchline uttered by Gilda Ratner’s character Emily Litella on Saturday Night Live decades ago is not unlike what Donna Karan’s and Dave Ratner’s recent apologies sounded like. Karan, a famous fashion designer, and Ratner, a popular Western Massachusetts business owner, quickly realized they had misspoken or acted in a way that didn’t properly convey their true beliefs.

Or so they say.

Karan apologized “from the bottom of my heart’’ and said she is embarrassed about remarks she made last week that suggested sexual harassment victims were ‘‘asking for it’’ by the way they dressed in light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

After experiencing a huge backlash from his customer base for appearing in a photo with President Trump at a signing ceremony, Ratner claims he wasn’t aware of the full impact on Obamacare of what Trump was signing. He has also said he had no idea that Trump would also order the federal health insurance subsidies be cut.

So often, we are called on to counsel clients who have been the victims of circumstance, luck or misfortune. Perhaps it was someone else who did or said something questionable. Perhaps it was single leader’s actions that an organization is now having to explain.

Both Karan and Ratner are essentially claiming “temporary insanity”—an excuse that rarely proves effective in the short term. Here’s a few ways you and/or your organization can avoid a similar self-imposed crisis:

  1. Have all the facts: Don’t accept an invitation to appear at an event hosted by an individual or group that you don’t completely understand or that doesn’t align with your organization’s values or mission. Remember, not all press is good press. My favorite line from the Ratner story was that his wife told he was “naïve.” If only his customers believed his appearance at 1600 Avenue was due to ignorance.

 

  1. Bite your tongue: Better to not comment on something that you don’t fully understand. Public figures like Karan are quoted so frequently that they lose the prospective on issues they should not be weighing-in on. The most controversial statement Karan should be offering should be on a competitor’s latest fashion line.

 

  1. Review messaging: If Ratner feels strongly about a high-profile national issue like healthcare, he should have some carefully-crafted messages ahead of time that articulate where he stands on the issue and his reasoning. All language should be uniform and consistent, whether written or spoken. He should have trusted advisors and even on objective third party provide the pros and cons of taking such a public stance.

 

  1. Identify the proper channel or forum: An op-ed in the local paper would have been a more thoughtful approach for Ratner—and would have spoken directly to his key audience–than a White House invitation, no matter how tempting or seemingly flattering. Should Karan have spoken about Weinstein, on camera on a red carpet, where she might not have been expecting such a question? No. If she had thoughts on the matter she felt were relevant, she could have arranged a sit-down interview, the kind she did when she issued her apology.

The issue with the “temporary insanity” excuse is credibility. Are Karan and Ratner apologizing because they really regret their actions/words or because the past week has been bad for business? Whatever their true intentions, it will be ultimately be up to the consumer to decide whether their apologies did the trick…or not.

 

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