Better safe than sorry

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 13, 2011 - 9:51 AM

Famous people often refuse to apologize for transgressions, or they do it poorly. Here's how experts say it should be done.

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U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., reacts during a news conference in New York, Monday, June 6, 2011. After days of denials, a choked-up New York Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner confessed Monday that he tweeted a bulging-underpants photo of himself to a young woman and admitted to "inappropriate" exchanges with six women before and after getting married.

Photo: Richard Drew, Associated Press - Ap

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Sensational screw-ups would seem to require two simple words -- "I'm" and "sorry" -- but many public figures manage to mangle apologies in the aftermath. Their attempts often are more contrived than contrite.

Celebrities who get caught, figuratively or literally, with their pants down seem oblivious to the proverbial rule of holes: When you're in one, stop digging. Instead, most of them hem and haw, dissemble and equivocate. They do anything and everything to avoid placing responsibility where it belongs. On themselves.

Married U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner's recent mea culpa over sending explicit photos of himself to several women was better than many, but it followed 10 days of outright lying. And in calling his lewd online activities "mistakes," the New York Democrat pushed a hot button for one Twin Cities observer.

"A mistake is turning the wrong way down a one-way street or forgetting to get an anniversary present," said William Doherty, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota. "A pattern of online relationships with multiple women requires more than 'I regret my mistakes, and I know I've hurt you.'"

Celebrities are different from the rest of us in many ways, especially when their egregious behavior gets exposed and Gawker-ized. Along with the relationship mending and legal problems we might confront if we got caught, say, texting naughty photos, they also face the daunting task of repairing their public image and salvaging their careers.

So we enlisted three Twin Cities experts -- psychologist Doherty, attorney Jessica Roe of Bernick Lifson and John Wodele, a PR person and former political adviser -- to tell us how they would have tried to steer five high-profile people after their transgressions went public.

U.S. REP. ANTHONY WEINER

The politician texted racy photos of himself to strangers, then denied it repeatedly before later admitting to it.

Doherty: "He needs to figure out why he has been using his sexuality in an adolescent way. He needs to say he will embark on a journey of learning how to be a grown-up in his relationships with women and with his own sexuality."

Roe: "Next time you put something 'special' out there via any social media site or even your phone ... make sure that your wife or lawyer (hopefully they are not the same person) approves the content first."

Wodele: "He should have resigned without delay. His behavior is one thing, but when a politician lies, and then lets the lie go on for as long as he did, it's over."

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

On the verge of his return to the big screen, the ex-California governor admitted fathering a child with his family's housekeeper and keeping it a secret for more than a decade.

Doherty: "You have to come completely clean with your family. You have to take full responsibility, 100 percent. ... And you have to let the other person know how much you know you hurt them."

Roe: "In public, he should fully acknowledge the situation. Honest acceptance is the only course that has any chance for redemption and pursuit of his future career goals."

Wodele: "Admit that you were a complete jerk. But let's face it: People are forgiving, and the publicity around this problem will fade soon enough -- if you can still act."

GILBERT GOTTFRIED

The edgy comedian tweeted offensive jokes about Japan just days after it suffered from deadly earthquakes and tsunamis, and was fired from his job as the voice of the Aflac duck. (Minnesotan Daniel McKeague replaced him as spokes-duck.)

Doherty: "You do some soul-searching about why you did it. For example, I think some people do this because they're drinking and things seem funny that don't seem so funny later. You say this is a wake-up call that covers a lot of these things."

Roe: "There should be an immediate apology that says nothing more than, 'I am sorry. It was inappropriate.' Then I would suggest some action -- donate time or money, frequent Japanese restaurants (with a bodyguard, of course). He will need to watch the fine print in his future contracts.

Wodele: "The comedy club in Fargo has an open stage on Monday nights. Stay there for a year, and people will forget."

CHARLIE SHEEN

TV's highest-paid actor threw barbs at his bosses and continues to exhibit outrageous behavior.

Doherty: "Try to get some understanding of how you got so far out of alignment. The only way you're credible when you're that far out is to say, 'I've been way far out, and this is how I want to deal with it.' The main candidates are addiction or mental disease."

Roe: "There is a difference between Gottfried's misfiring creative activity and Sheen's self-destructive behavior. This actor is going to breach every contract he signs. Until he starts recovery, there will likely be big legal fees for some lucky (or unlucky, as the case may be) attorney."

Wodele: "It's not the outrageous behavior that is your problem; it's the substance abuse. Take care of that to get your personal life in order, and then -- not to worry --there is always a need for outrageous behavior on cable TV."

LINDSAY LOHAN

The actress has been arrested frequently, including for jewelry theft, and has entered and quickly left treatment several times. She's serving a 120-day sentence under house arrest.

Doherty: "People don't do this unless they have a serious psychological problem. You have to cop to your being out of control. And you go to treatment and say, 'This time I'm not going in with the false pride that I had before. ... I'm determined this time to turn myself over to the healing process.' And when someone says they don't believe you, you say, 'I don't blame you.'"

Roe: "You've got two choices: Do you want a career performing short skits to a judge with longer runs to a very captive audience in a government-run venue? Or do you want to get back to your real career of making money and choosing your outfits rather than wearing the same one over and over again? Should she choose option 1, no press conference necessary. If she chooses option 2, she should make amends, legally and emotionally, and then quietly get down to the business of acting."

Wodele: "Buck up, girl. While ours is a society of second chances, you are well beyond that. Fail this one, and your 'unseemly' behavior won't even be welcome on cable TV."

Staff writer Neal Justin contributed to this report.

WHO'S SORRY NOW?

Gilbert Gottfried: Insensitive.

Lindsay Lohan: Incorrigible.

Arnold Schwarzenegger: Inconsiderate.

Charlie Sheen: Not winning.

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