How to Survive a High-Profile Scandal

Clockwise from top left: Kate Moss, Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sen. George Allen, and Britney Spears. (Photo courtesy
Clockwise from top left: Kate Moss, Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sen. George Allen, and Britney Spears. (Photo courtesy

by Marcus Baram, ABC News

Kate Moss, Ted Kennedy, Britney Spears, and George Allen.

What do they all have in common?

They've each endured headline-making scandals, but with wildly different results.

When Moss, one of the highest-profile models in the world, was videotaped using cocaine last year she was dropped from several ad campaigns amid dire predictions that her career was finished. Today, Moss is back and bigger than ever, snagging 18 top modeling contracts in just 12 months, winning model-of-the-year honors and earning $60 million in 2006.

When Allen, a former Virginia senator and top Republican presidential prospect, was videotaped last August using a racial slur, he was quickly condemned by political observers and his ratings sank in the polls. Once considered a shoo-in for re-election, he ended up losing his Senate seat and squandering his chances of running for higher office.

Moss rebounded and Allen was ruined. Why did one of them come back and the other one collapse?

The celebrity scandal is a mainstay of our 24-hour news cycle. Michael Richards and Mel Gibson are two of its latest faces, and Britney Spears seems to be a permanent fixture. And the reasons certain stars survive and others don't make it have as much to do with the nature of the scandal as the appeal of the personality involved, say experts in crisis management.

According to Eric Dezenhall, who runs a crisis management firm, and Michael Sands, who has done damage control for Michael Jackson and Kevin Federline, there are several general rules when it comes to celebrity scandal:

Come clean -- as early as possible: "Mark Foley didn't come clean at the beginning. He just disappeared," says Sands. "Everyone had to delve into exactly what he did. And that made his actions all the more unappealing. He didn't nip it in the bud."

A simple apology isn't enough: "I see no evidence that apologies accomplish what PR flacks think they will accomplish," says Dezenhall. It's an entry fee to redemption, but that's about it. After that, it depends on your personal appeal."

But a tactical apology works wonders: "Kobe Bryant survivied because of a tactical apology, combining contrition with destroying your attacker," says Dezenhall. "And Bill Clinton did the same thing. They went on the attack against their attackers and really injured them. Once their accusers were obliterated, they said, 'I shouldn't have done what I did.' It's a one-two punch."

A racial slur is far more lethal than an anti-Semitic slur: "The track record of those surviving a racial slur is really awful," says Dezenhall. "African-Americans are viewed as minorities and Jews are viewed as an elite. No one will touch Michael Richards -- he's done. But Mel Gibson should survive."

Personality goes a long way: "Look at Sammy Sosa. He was accused of corking his bat," says Dezenhall. "But people like the guy, so he's as popular as ever."

So does talent. "In some cases, pencils have erasers," says Sands. "Clarence Thomas was obviously very capable and that helped him survive that scandal. Same goes for Kobe Bryant and Martha Stewart. They are very talented and people admire that."

Men can get away with a lot more than women can. "When a man is being naughty, he's a dude being a dude," says Dezenhall. "When a woman is being naughty, she's unstable or a slut. Look at Hugh Grant. The fact that he cheated on a beautiful woman like Liz Hurley -- you've got to be a stud to do that. It gave him a bad-boy veneer."

The media will forgive adultery before they forgive sloppiness: "Gary Hart was a victim of his time," says Dezenhall. "He baited the media; he challenged them to find any evidence of womanizing. So when they did, he was done. It suggested that he was a man out of control."

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