Blog Post / Jan. 13, 2020


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Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely teaches us a lesson in crisis and brand management. 

Sabrina Rubin Erdely issued a statement on April 5 in the wake of the publication’s retraction of her 2014 article entitled “A Rape on Campus.” She immediately owned her mistakes in the very first sentence, stating “[t]he past few months…have been among the most painful in my life. Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience.” Wait…WHAT? (Read the complete statement here). This is a classic example of crisis and brand management gone wrong. Rather than starting with “I was wrong, and I apologize,” Ms. Erdely began with making this about her and her experience. In doing so, she hurt not only those impacted by her article, but she also hurt her personal and professional brand. Her statement did not begin the repair and recovery process – for anyone. She isn’t the first person to miss the chance, and she won’t be the last.

 The concept is simple. When someone messes up, we expect him or her to acknowledge it, own it and at least try to fix it. Is that too much to ask? Is it an unrealistic expectation? With carefully crafted talking points, one can redirect the conversation without actually addressing the issue at hand. Given my past life as a lawyer, I can understand why the legal advice might be to say nothing. As theMiranda warning points out in criminal situations, anything we say can and will be used against us in a court of law.

Perhaps the lawsuit from Phi Kappa Psi was inevitable. But according to Jennifer Robbennolt, a professor at the University of Illinois, an apology actually helps resolve legal disputes (check out the article here). Accountability is an underutilized concept. When I think back on what prompted many of the lawsuits I defended, I can probably chalk the vast majority of matters up to miscommunication, which led to misunderstanding, which led to frustration, which led to anger, which went unanswered (or was rejected) and which then led to a lawsuit. This does not mean saying “I’m sorry” will eliminate lawsuits. Some people are going to sue no matter what and regardless of whether a claim has merit.

Notwithstanding, maybe…just maybe…Erdely could have done better if she approached it this way:

“To the U.V.A. community, the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity [noticeably absent from Erdely’s apology, by the way] and the countless victims of sexual violence, I am sorry. I failed to faithfully execute my duties as an investigative journalist. I allowed my personal feelings and judgment of one individual’s credibility to prevent me from fully investigating the facts. In failing to do my job as I am expected, I harmed each of you. For that, I am deeply sorry. I will learn from this. I will not repeat these mistakes. I can and will do better. I promise.”

Let’s be cautious, though, when passing judgment on Erdely’s employment status with Rolling Stone. We can be optimistic that Erdely will not squander the second chance she has been given. We all make mistakes (or, as I like to say, we all have “learning experiences”). Rolling Stone has an opportunity as well to provide the training and resources to ensure that neither Erdely nor any other reporter makes the same mistakes again. Erdely has an opportunity to be accountable and learn from this situation and rebuild her brand. Second chances are realistic. Third and fourth chances…well, I suppose it depends.