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Honesty in PR: #admitwhenYoumakemistakes

by Sarah Shea, editor

Nearly every conversation about public relations ethics comes back to one crucial idea. For insider trading scandals—honesty is crucial. For crisis communications—honesty is crucial. And for reputation management? Honesty.

The Penn State scandal came with several opportunities for honesty in communication. While the university itself arguably took a little too long to disseminate information, the entire crisis presented opportunities for PR.

In situations like this, social media often rears its head. Reactions to Joe Paterno’s dismissal went viral. Avid tweeters quickly tweeted their responses when the news broke.

For the average user, hastily typed tweets are inconsequential and soon forgotten. But for celebrities, a single thoughtless tweet can spur harsh commentary from the cyber world.

Just minutes after Paterno’s firing was announced on Nov. 9, Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk), tweeted, “How do you fire Jo Pa? #insult #noclass as a hawkeye fan I find it in poor taste.”

Clearly, Kutcher hadn’t gotten the full story explaining why Paterno was fired. The tweet, which has since been deleted, immediately erupted when it showed up on the timelines of more than 8.2 million of Kutcher’s followers.

His Twitter handle, aplusk, was completely managed by the actor himself at the time. I was astounded by Kutcher’s response to his follwers’ outrage. He was bombarded by a multitude of hateful replies, including:

“Who is more ignorant? @Aplusk, or the EIGHT MILLION idiots who follow him?”

“@aplusk with 8 million followers, you MAY want to reserve your opinions until you know the whole story.”
“@aplusk superrrrFAIL.”

And how did Kutcher respond? He replied, tweeted and retweeted nearly immediately. He did the honest thing — admitted fault. Even for the harshest of tweets, Kutcher replied “agreed” and “had no idea.”

He followed up and fully exposed his blunder, tweeting, “Heard Joe was fired, fully recant previous tweet! Didn’t have full story. #admitwhenYoumakemistakes.”

Even his brutal honesty couldn’t undo the crisis. So Kutcher moved forward. In a Nov. 10 blog post, he wrote a detailed account of his side of the story.

The actor said, “I quickly retracted and deleted my previous post; however, that didn’t seem enough to satisfy people’s outrage at my misinformed post. I am truly sorry. And moreover [I] am going to take action to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Through this post, Kutcher formally announced that his production company, Katalyst Media, would now manage his account.

Though Kutcher’s response has been widely criticized, I’d argue for him — and not just because he’s my middle school heartthrob.

I’d say most humans can relate to the pain of speaking before they think. Whether it comes out in a brash remark, a misinformed opinion or a tweet at large, most of us have experienced some sort of regret over a few cursory words.

For me, Kutcher’s Twitter blunder seems honest. It seems human.

Furthermore, the ability to admit mistakes gives even one of the most followed faces of Twitter a friendly touch.


  1. Post comment

    I have to agree with Becca, our moms were right! “Honesty is the best policy.” It’s only a matter of time before you’re found out anyway-we’ve seen this to be true time and time again. Our parents, professors and advisers didn’t reiterate how important the truth is for nothing. Especially for PR professionals, honesty and transparency is the best thing they can do in any situation. People receive a confession and apology better than a fabricated story and two apologies (one for the lie and one for the actual crime).

  2. Post comment

    Thanks for your response. I have to say, I think there’s a lot to be said about celebrities managing their own social media. Be it good or bad, celebrities have the opportunity to brand themselves through social media. That being said, it’s important for who they actually are to come across on Twitter or any other outlet.

  3. Post comment

    I am from south Alabama which was greatly affected by the BP oil spill. After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, BP originally denied responsibility until it was forced to accept the facts. Instead of sympathizing with the people, BP battled over who was at fault. Many of the local people lost all respect for BP. The delay in taking responsibility greatly affected BP’s image. It has since tried to recover from its initial response and show sympathy to those who were affected.

    The public can be harsh critics. As PR practitioners, we must work through the criticism and build a relationship. In BP’s situation, it missed the opportunity to be honest from the beginning and show sympathy and respect for the incident. A public battle of who should pay up is not the way a company should be seen. This is especially the case for the company who was in the wrong.

  4. Post comment

    This is one of my favorite post to date. As a PR major and aspiring entertainment and sports publicists incidents similar to this one are ones that I find particularly interesting. Particularly because recently when athletes and entertainers cause controversy it is through social media. Their involvement in social media raises the question, “Should they be allowed to control their social media?” And more often then not I don’t think so.

    However, if your clients are allowed to control their own social media honesty is the best policy. Simply because rarely does truth ever get someone in trouble. So I agree it is best to be honest not only in a professional manor but ethically.

  5. Post comment

    My Mom always said, “Honesty is the best policy.” She was right. Being honest can save your credibility and avoid further confusion. Trying to hide your mistakes or not revealing all of the facts hurts your rapport with the public. As PR practitioners, we need to make sure the public knows all available, relevant information. As our title implies, we are responsible for the relationship. By withholding information on issues, regardless of impact, the subject becomes more suspicious.

    This philosophy applies to both personal and professional life. If a friend knew information that was important to you and they did not tell you, your trust in them would be affected. The same goes for the publics of the company you are working for. Being honest upfront will insure consumer confidence. Admitting a wrong will also ultimately build respect.


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