Two can keep a secret if one of them is dead. That old saying predates YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter: Today, two can keep a secret if one is dead, and the other hasn’t been caught on a Smartphone video.
There’s no such thing as a secret anymore: assume, if you have done something shady, unethical, or of questionable legality, you’re going to get caught.
But – then what?
Most of the time, it’s not the mistake or poor judgment that’s the problem; it’s the cover-up. When a lewd picture of Anthony Weiner appeared online, he denied all accusations and claimed he was a victim of a “Twitter hoax.” “Somebody sent a wiener from Weiner’s account. I’ve been hearing that joke since I was five.” Ever the punch line! He never anticipated that the truth would come out. But in this day and age, it ALWAYS will.
Before constant connectivity and instant news, you could swear people to secrecy, threaten them, cover up mistakes, and flat out lie. You can’t get away with that anymore. There is always someone who will slip an email to a reporter, leak a confidential memo, or upload a video. The attempt to cover up the original mistake takes on a life of its own. That becomes the story.
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What’s the best course of action?
Know that, at some point, your action and initial response could end up on the cover of the Wall Street Journal , YouTube, or Twitter. It will come out. We dig the hole deeper and deeper by lying, and we extend the shelf life of scandal and crisis.
Fess up. “I did it.” As Mayor Rob Ford said, eventually. “I’m only human.”
Apologize sincerely. People do make mistakes – some much more spectacularly than others, but we are all only human. Admitting your error and saying “I’m sorry” can be incredibly powerful – if you mean it and commit to never repeating the misstep.
Take action. Prove that your apology is more than lip service to the public and media. What are you going to do to correct the mistake or to ensure it never happens again?
Enlist some help. If the error is “confined” – it’s not going to land you on a Letterman Top Ten List – your management team or a coach can help you work through it, gain clarity, and figure out how to deal with it. If it is going to make the WSJ and beyond, you need to engage a firm that specializes in damage control so they can help you work out an effective strategy.
Ideally, you don’t make a mistake of this caliber! If you do, admit it, learn from it, and, most importantly, do not do it again. If you’re contrite and humble, people have a tendency to forgive you. Once. It’s hard to play the humble “Sorry” card more than that.