Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ann Curry: How to recover from a public gaffe

I caught a Yahoo! News story today about NBC news' Ann Curry having given a commencement speech at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts last Saturday, in which she created a bit of a PR problem for herself.


As a respected journalist, Ann Curry's reputation takes a bigger hit over this kind of error than someone else's might; she's expected to do her research, and to get the facts right. That's why we listen to her.

But with that said, we all make mistakes; and the more public our profile, the higher the likelihood they'll come with public embarrassment. So, if you (or your client) is a public figure, what's the best strategy? Do you make excuses? Do you pretend it never happened?

In the social media age, neither of those is going to work.

As far as making excuses goes, they rarely get you any sympathy. It's entirely possible she had a researcher put notes together for her -- or even employed someone else to write the speech. But when you're invited to give a speech, the audience expects that you're providing your own insights in your own words. Laying the blame somewhere else won't cut it: the buck stops with you.

And as for pretending it never happened, you could, but you'd be the only one doing so. A quick Google News search on "Ann Curry Wheaton" this afternoon returned 435 news stories.

So, what do you do?

Own it.

When you make a mistake, admit it, apologize, take the hit you earned, and move on: just like Ann Curry did. As the Yahoo! article reported,

"For her part, Curry penned an open letter to the Wheaton community expressing that she was "mortified" by her mistake. She wrote, in part:

So it is with a heavy heart that I ask you to forgive me for mistakenly naming graduates of the other Wheaton College in my address.

I now know I should have named National Medal of Science winner Dr. Mary Ellen Avery, former New Jersey Governor and former EPA Director Christie Todd Whitman, literary agent Esther Newberg, Oscar-nominated actress Catherine Keener and Ken Babby, the youngest senior officer in the history of the Washington Post, among others. Thank goodness I got Leslie Stahl right.

I am mortified by my mistake, and can only hope the purity of my motive, to find a way to connect with the graduates and to encourage them to a life of service, will allow you to forgive me

Then, she used her Twitter account to proactively own up to her mistake (her tweet links to the news video above).

I don't know whether she addressed it on The Today Show this week (I couldn't find any video online), but I wouldn't be surprised if she did. (If you can answer this question, please do so in the comments!)

Now, to add embarrassment to embarrassment, a commenter on noted that Curry had misspelled Lesley Stahl's name in her apology... but still.

Curry's apology letter (sent on Monday) is humble and sincere and makes me, at least, feel badly for her. In this situation, I think that's the best she could have hoped for.

We all make mistakes; the rest of us should just be thankful ours don't become fodder for 435 news articles.

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