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Dissecting the anatomy of ‘celebrity’ comebacks amidst an ‘outrage economy’

Aaron Kwittken discusses what could be the formula in seeing which celebrities get to survive their PR snafus. / ABC via Twitter

I start every media training session with two cautionary adages: beware of the career-ending quote, and everything you say can and will be used against you. I still stand by these pearls of wisdom, unless you are the current President of the United States. For some reason, his crassness remains acceptable among more than half of Americans. I can’t explain this. Nobody can.

For everyone else in the public eye, due process is non-existent in the court of public opinion in our new outrage economy – as evidenced by movements like #metoo and #timesup, and an inclination to record and share “private” conversations (Omarosa, Michael Cohen). Organizations waste no time terminating people and distancing themselves long before formal investigations even start.

Anonymity is now synonymous with legitimacy. Yet, it’s really a false equivalency, easily weaponized and difficult for mere communications mortals to disarm.

I am often asked about “comebacks”, or recovery, for people in the public eye who have been accused of some sort of wrongdoing. This is case and point with Roseanne Barr's tweets, followed by James Gunn's firing by Disney. My answer is always the same: it depends, and it’s complicated!

The art of the “comeback” is really a simple formula, but is followed by a calculus that can span seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years or decades before things return to normal, if they do at all.

The formula is:

+ Existing Bank of Goodwill

– Severity and Volume of Allegation(s)

X Acknowledgement or Apology

X Remediation/Actions X Community Support

+ Passage of Time

= Odds of Comeback

There have been and will continue to be many people who step in shit or have a past that comes back to haunt them. Every week there’s something swirling around the news cyclone that causes outrage and backlash. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Ronan Farrow’s and other investigative journalists’ efforts. But why are we willing to forgive certain wrongdoings, but so quick to dance on others’ graves? The fact is, not all bad behavior is weighed equally. Oftentimes it is not the wrongdoing itself that craters someone, but rather how and how quickly they react to the allegation(s). Sometimes, it’s a question of how liked the person was to begin with.

There are some real head scratchers. Why allow convicted PED user Alexander Rodriguez, a.k.a. A-Rod, and animal abuser Michael Vik into our hearts and homes as sports commentators, but hang onto so much vitriol for Lance Armstrong? I would posit that Lance was overly defiant, litigious and self-righteous, and that his apology was too little, too late.

If Brian Williams can make a come back, can Matt Lauer? No. Brian was caught in a small lie, but Matt was caught cheating and using his power to force women into sexual encounters. The severity and volume of Lauer’s actions are way too great to mount a real comeback.

We’ve been cheering on Tiger Woods the past few weeks, who very publicly cheated on his wife with escorts and was charged with DUI last year. Why? The passage of time and his actions, which were (as far as we know) consensual, were perceived by many as victimless. And let’s face it – Americans love a comeback.

Louis C.K. quickly apologized for his crass (and bizarre) behavior, yet both HBO and FX quickly terminated his deals. Is that fair? Is that ok? I would bet that with the passage of time, Louis C.K. will make a comeback. On the continuum of heinous behavior, and to prove a point that the public assigns “weights” to allegations, it’s highly unlikely that Harvey Weinstein will ever recover – and that’s fine by everyone.

Communicators like me are often asked for our POV on how to handle delicate situations when they arise. Ideally, here’s a quick list of questions we should ask:

What’s the charge or allegation? When and where did it take place?

Was the alleged conduct immoral and/or illegal?

What impact did the alleged actions have on others? Were there victims?

What are the chances this becomes public and by what means? Litigation? Government actions? Whistleblower?

Is there a media statement drafted in case this becomes public?

Are the allegations true?

Who is conducting the investigation, and are you consulting any external experts?

When did you first learn of this?

Did the accused remedy his/her actions and if so, how?

How will your organization prevent this type of behavior from happening again?

What punitive actions is the organization considering, in the interim and/or long term?

In short, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to coming back from a misstep. The rebound depends on many different and very individual factors, both before the hiccup and after. But with several carefully thought-through questions and strategies, it can – in certain cases – be possible to recover.

Aaron Kwittken is the founder of KWT Global (formerly known as Kwittken)

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