When I was an undergrad at Yale, I ran for alderman of New Haven. I lost, but after the election, William F. Buckley Jr. invited me to his home. When I visited Buckley, we talked about starting a foundation to support some of Yale's student groups. At least, I sure thought we did. Brimming with pride, I went back to school and persuaded Yale alumni to donate to the foundation. Naturally, I told them that Buckley was our chief supporter.
When one donor mentioned the foundation to Buckley, he said, "What foundation?" He didn't remember our conversation the way that I did.
The whole setup fell apart. By not being careful in talking with Buckley and others, I had harmed my reputation among powerful people and the Yale community as a whole.
We all make mistakes, sometimes awful ones. Whether or not you deserve the condemnation of your peers and the general public, this is how you recover:
1. Get some perspective. It's easy to panic in a crisis. Calm down and compare your problems to the crises that others have suffered. For instance, look at what Bill Clinton or Martha Stewart went through. If they can rebound, so can we.
In fact, it's simpler for us, because we're not on the world's radar screen. We're not on CNN or the topic of conversation at cocktail parties.
2. Assess and forgive yourself. Think about it: Are you really a jackass? What I mean is, are you fundamentally evil? Do you harm people consistently and laugh about it? If the answer is no, then you need to forgive yourself. You need to get over it so you can move on and be a better person. You have to forgive yourself before you can expect others to forgive you.
3. Go to the confessional. Come clean and admit to your frailties and stupidity. Let the people around you know what really happened so they can trust you again. They're not going to trust you until they feel you've fully divulged.
Open up to everyone, not just your friends. It's tempting to isolate yourself among glad-handers, but that's no way to recover from disaster. You have to face people who'll be angry at you. The most disarming and successful thing you can do with these people is agree: "You know what? You're right. I was a total jackass. We all do stupid things; this was maybe more stupid than most."
4. Get back on the horse and start going again. Do not crawl into a hole, tempting as it may seem. Prove to yourself and everyone else that you are a good person. Commit to making a positive change in the world.
Look at the work that Mike Milken has done with the fight against cancer. The Mike that I know today gets up at 5:00 in the morning and works his butt off to make the world a better place. He's very focused on his philanthropy work, and people are giving him credit for it. The turnaround in perception is well-deserved. In fact, more people than ever are now saying that the original mark on Mike's reputation was ill-founded.
5. As always, treat people right. Show genuine caring and appreciation for the people around you, and you're likely to attract their aid if you get in trouble. Show gratitude to the people who support you.
One more thing — don't abandon your friends when they are in crisis situations. When Martha Stewart was at Alderson, I was constantly sending her positive e-mails in an effort to lift her spirits.
As you can see from these examples, hitting a career or personal brand crisis doesn't mean it's all over. In fact, if addressed properly, the crisis can be an opportunity to come back stronger, smarter and better than ever.