Economy-size Redemption is Enough
My friend directed me to a story in the New York Times about Elizabeth Koch, daughter of billionaire Charles Koch. After suffering considerable personal distress as a result of her extraordinary life circumstances, Koch founded an organization devoted to helping others through “self-investigation.” It looks interesting and good for her.
There are many forms of anguish in life. Poverty — a big one — is one Koch has been able to avoid. She’s looking for a way to assist others in a manner in which she feels qualified. If those of us without her resources feel compelled to criticize her, what would we have her do to convince us of her worth? Nothing defuses resentment except schadenfreude, which is human, but not achievement.
Koch’s story has a subtext of a search for redemption, a subject I often run across in the crisis management business. The common denominator of those confronting reputational crises is that the only form of true redemption is that which is done in the public domain. Put differently, if you redeem yourself in the forest where no one can hear it, does it make a sound?
The goal of public appreciation of one’s good works is understandable but often unrealistic and self-destructive. In the cases I’ve had during the past forty years — often the worst of the worst — my clients have been accused of doing bad things. Sometimes the charges are fair. Other times, the clients (usually corporate or institutional in my case), have been caught up in a broader weather system and have been unfairly or disproportionately maligned. Every case is its own animal, but the media have an active investment in making certain the target remains subhuman.
A publicly-traded company that relies on widespread goodwill needs to be concerned about its reputation. The good news is that most companies in this category recover because they have the leadership, time horizon, and resources to carry them through. These are the most rewarding cases, but I’ll never discuss them.
Individuals are another thing altogether. In an age when we are increasingly measuring our self-worth by an addiction to hollow reinforcement, we should call it what it is: desperation. The Georgia grand jury forewoman diving in front of cameras to opine about the Trump election case. According to media reports, she is a witch, not in the pejorative sense but in an eye-of-newt-wing-of-bat kind of way (Oh, how quirky we are!). Madonna blowing up her head with plastic surgery into a parade float to ensure every last soul can see her from outer space. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex carpet-bombing civilization with their royal understatement. And if you need help understanding how low-key and reticent they are, they’ll come to your house with flatbeds of speakers borrowed from a Ted Nugent concert and blast you with their reserve for seven hours. Trump wearing presidential stuff, in case you didn’t know.
My challenge with advising high-profile individuals confronting scandal is convincing them there are roads back to a meaningful life that don’t lead to Jimmy Kimmel. It’s one thing if you’re a movie star. It’s another if you’re a CEO or university president. Several Watergate figures went on to successful lives rooted in religion or business. Nixon wrote books.
Fallen CEOs often remain in business but operate on a smaller stage than they once had. Football star Michael Vick (dog fighting) became active in charity work. Monica Lewinsky addresses online bullying. Donna Rice Hughes (Gary Hart scandal) runs a charity advocating internet safety for children.
There is a lesson here, even for those of us who aren’t scandalized. It’s easy to believe in this climate that a well-publicized life is the only life. I suspect the generations raised on Facebook and TikTok will confront an existential crisis in the years ahead when they realize there are never enough “likes” to feel loved. Someone recently asked me why I don’t do as many TV interviews as I once did. I reflexively said, “I don’t need some bitter congressional aide watching me and deciding to throw a subpoena my way” (this happened).
I was only half kidding. I have found a direct and immediate correlation between visibility and incoming fire. People not only want to be visible but also don’t want others to be visible if they can’t be. The desperate used to steal food; now they downvote you or spread a rumor that you are known to molest dachshunds.
It’s easy to think you can withstand negative attention when you’ve never been through it. Threats. Lawsuits. Harassment. Gossip. I’m wondering if the current cognitive toxin that everybody is thinking about us — or should be — will collapse under the weight of diminishing or devastating returns.
In the meantime, I’m rooting for Elizabeth Koch. She’s in a place to do a lot of good. Most of us are only in a position to do a little good — without broad public recognition. Nevertheless, doing a little good can end up being a lot of good if we recalibrate our expectations, scandal, or no scandal. Despite the myth, not even the Great Wall of China can be seen from outer space. That should tell us something.