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How to handle a scandal30th May 12
By Bernard O’Riordan, Clarity Media Trainer
A golden rule when it comes to reputation management is “fight, not flight”. In other words, when your name has been sullied by a scandal, smear campaign or gossip it’s often better to go on the front foot with your accusers rather than to 'hot foot it'.
That’s why John Travolta’s decision to reportedly bunker down in the Bahamas following a string of sordid sexual assault claims could be a risky and costly move.
On the one hand it violates that basic rule of thumb that it’s better to defend your reputation rather than take flight. On the other, you can understand why he would want to protect his family from the damaging blowtorch of tabloid headlines.
As he battles to save his reputation, his acting career and his marriage, the 58-year-old former Grease star has left his high-priced and high-powered legal adviser Marty Singer to do all the talking for him.
It is yet to be seen how these unproven claims will impact his reputation or his bankability. But it certainly couldn’t have come at a worse time as he prepares to resurrect his acting career in two new films, Oliver Stone's drug war drama Savages and the drama Killing Season.
Despite reports to the contrary, a much-hyped film about the Gotti crime family starring Travolta is still being planned. And Qantas is also sticking by the embattled Hollywood star, who has been an ambassador for the Australian airline since 2002.
Whether Travolta has been falsely accused or indeed has questions to answer is for a court to decide. But by not addressing the allegations personally, Travolta might fuel the public’s suspicion and send out the wrong message.
The golden rule when a crisis hits is to get out in front and be as transparent as you possibly can be. Managing reputational damage is about managing the impressions that the public will form of you - it’s not necessarily about admitting fault or divulging details.
Yet everyday that Travolta stays silent, new and damaging headlines emerge which continue to chip away at his credibility and his personal brand. Those little hits will eventually add up to a big hit if the salacious stories continue and Travolta chooses to remain silent.
A lawyer trying to limit liability will no doubt have a different take on all of this than someone who's sole focus is reputational damage control. But in many cases, losing in the court of public opinion can be far more damaging than losing in a court of law.
Only Travolta, a longtime member of the Church of Scientology, and his accusers know the truth in this whole messy affair. Travolta’s tactic seems to be about letting his accusers discredit themselves as new holes emerge in their claims.
Although both his initial accusers have now dropped their lawsuits, they have since hired a high-powered celebrity lawyer which suggests some bargaining might be taking place behind closed doors.
As previous scandals have shown us, there's not a one-size-fits-all template for handling a scandal. But there is one fundamental rule: get to the truth as early as possible. In the fast-paced world of social media, blogs, online forums, talkback radio and tabloid news, it’s easier than ever for others to damage your name and reputation in an instant.
Whether it's a celebrity like Travolta, politicians like Peter Slipper or Craig Thompson, a sporting hero like Andrew Ettingshausen or big global brands like News Corp or JP Morgan, there a few rules to consider in the search for PR redemption:
Don’t hide: Face up to the reality of the situation. There are battles to restore your reputation and battles for revenge. Engage in the former and avoid the latter;
Act quickly: Act quickly and decisively in response to accusations whether they're true or false. It’s vital you help the public form their own opinions about allegations against you;
Stick to the facts: Don’t get into messy details and don’t say more than you have to;
Remain calm: Avoid confrontations and don't be provoked by the media or your accusers. It’s a dangerous tactic and risks inflaming a bad situation;
Admit fault: If you have stuffed up, this is where the three R’s of crisis management will eventually be needed: regret, responsibility and remedy. Provide a rational explanation and express genuine regret for any hurt caused.
The good news for Travolta is that the public tends to be forgiving when it comes to celebrity or sporting sex scandals. The AFL and NRL have had their fair share of scandals involving Brendan Fevola, Nick Reiwoldt, Nicky Rixon and Matthew Johns and in almost every instance the individuals concerned have bounced back and resumed successful careers.
Tiger Woods, Rob Lowe, Hugh Grant and even former US President Bill Clinton have also seen their careers recover despite the massive blots on their reputations. So there's no reason to think Travolta would be viewed any differently.
He can't put the genie back in the bottle, but how he handles this personal crisis will determine how quickly it is all forgotten in the eyes of his fans, business partners and future employers.