We All Have a Face

I was talking with some PR folks off the record this week to get a sense of how they might handle the Mel Gibson mess.

It was difficult to get them to separate their damage-control selves from the ones who said that if he was their client they would drop him immediately for what they felt was the revelation of his true feelings about Jews.

I don't know what's in his heart, but I do know how I would handle his attempted recovery from this huge media hit.

First, I would not schedule an interview with Oprah or Larry King. That smells too much like somebody trying to rehabilitate themselves. They are TV's answer to the confessional, but so transparently so that it smacks of just the sort of strategy that his strategy can't afford to smack of.

And if it is exclusive, it could raise the question of whether the quid pro quo for that exclusivity was softballs lobbed over the middle of the plate. I am reminded of the performance review: "Works well when trapped like a rat."

I would instead call a press conference (I am borrowing this from one of my PR pals) immediately–no questions, just a heartfelt statement–to announce I was begining a journey of self-discovery and reclamation. I wouldn't put it in quite that California a way. More like: "I clearly have some issues. I think I know where they come from ["you have to be carefully taught" goes the song], but I don't like them and I will need help in understanding and expelling the demons that are part of the reason I have a drinking problem. Thanks for your support and understanding." Exit.

Be positive. Put the emphasis on the new butterfly that may emerge, not the ugly caterpillar of today. Recognize the enormity of the injury. At a time when Israel is under attack both from Lebanon and a wider world nervous about escalating Middle East tensions, his timing could hardly have been worse.

Then, after the press conference, Gibson drops out of sight for a while and rehabs or whatever he does.When he returns, it is with a chastened attitude, a recognition that he has worked through some ugly, inherited prejudice, and armed with positive steps to a wider understanding. PSA's on tolerance, a documentary on Moses.

Whenever he is asked about the incident in the meantime, Gibson should say it is personal and that he is still on "his journey."

People want to forgive someone who admits they have a problem rather than acts like they don't get it.

This "I am absolutely not anti-Semitic" rings hollow. As the Billy Joel song says, "We all have a face that we hide away from strangers." OK, Mother Teresa and my dad excepted. But most of us do. The perception–which is nine-tenths of PR reality–was that Gibson was simply showing his at a moment of alcohol-facilitated weakness or frustration. He would not be the first, though his agreement wasn't even gentlemanly. If he admitted it it would be a painful and ugly truth, but still a truth, which is better than a carefully crafted lie. Lance the boil and see how much better you feel. Ignore it and you just get sicker.

What would make the strategy airtight is if Gibson actually believed it himself and tried to get to the root of his prejudice, work beyond it, and work toward dispelling it in the wider world.

On that route lies true forgiveness, a smidge better world, and probably a book deal. Everybody wins.

By John Eggerton