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Is an Apology Really Best for Bill O'Reilly's Reputation?

Another month, another news reporter scandal. This time, Bill O'Reilly of Fox News is in the crossfire due to allegations of truth stretching and unusual reporting. Now, people are wondering what he should do to answer questions, overcome challenges and keep his reputation intact.

When this happened to Brian Williams, I wrote up a little column containing tidbits of advice I thought he might follow to get back on track (you can read that piece right here). In that column, I suggested that an accurate apology full of sincerity should be Job 1 for Williams.

A recent Media Matters survey suggests that some 31 percent of people think O'Reilly should do the same, if he is (indeed) guilty of stretching the truth about his past.

But is that the right approach for this news anchor? I'm not so sure.

Why Not Apologize?

I think of an apology as a long-game strategy. A person who apologizes for a major gaffe is setting the scene for a recovery that might be months or even years away. The apology doesn't really repair the damage as much as signal to the world that the person who has made the gaffe is really sorry and will work harder in the future. Then, that person heads off into the sunset to do the hard work of regaining trust.

This is the William's model. While his apology fell flat at the time (partly because it didn't contain enough of a real sense of regret), he followed up that statement by taking a leave of absence (and a suspension), and he really hasn't been seen since. He could be planning to come back when that suspension is over with a whole new work ethos. His apology sets the stage for that comeback.

But O'Reilly might not need to go away and then come back. Researchers suggest that his ratings are higher now than they have ever been, particularly among people in his network's key demographic. That seems to suggest that people are already inclined to forgive him, whether he makes any kind of statement about the issue or not. They're not abandoning him in a real sense, so he may not need to pacify them with an apology.

Also, it's important to remember that O'Reilly's core fans like him to be a little bit feisty. They're accustomed to watching him speak off the cuff about current events, and they're used to watching him mix the personal and the professional. They might feel like they know him on a personal level, and they might root for his success because he seems like a friend.

To loyal viewers like this, an attack in Mother Jones isn't a threat to O'Reilly's credibility. It's an example of the sorts of issues O'Reilly has been hinting at for years. If he apologizes, that could anger some viewers who don't want liberal reports to gain traction. An apology would be a betrayal.

What to Do Instead?

When it comes to reputation management, knowing your audience is absolutely vital. And O'Reilly seems to know his audience quite well. However, he still has a reputation problem to get over. There's damage done, and work to do. Here are three things I think he could do right now to make his situation better.

1. Don't threaten people.

In the immediate aftermath of the Mother Jones report, O'Reilly made some rash statements about the reporter, and in one notorious instance, he made what sounded a little like a threat. That's never a smart idea.

When it comes to reputation problems, it's ideal to make the issue die down as fast as possible. A threat is news, and it keeps the story alive. O'Reilly should look for ways to keep his temper under control, speaking only about his feelings and his work, without stooping to threaten others.

2. Find a way to discuss the issue.

If no apology is needed, O'Reilly could simply discuss how the issue came about. He might sit down for an informal Q&A with his co-hosts and outline what he was thinking about when he discussed or wrote about foreign conflicts. He might outline his credentials and service to his country, and discuss how his need to be heard might have made him exaggerate a few things. He might just work to explain and minimize, rather than apologize, and that could put the issue to rest.

3. Give back to wounded parties.

Like Williams, O'Reilly's statements seem most offensive to people who have served in the military or who have seen action in an overseas conflict. By claiming he did things he did not, he seems to disrespect the contributions of people who did make huge sacrifices for home and country.

O'Reilly should find a way to give back to these communities directly, either by volunteering time or money. There's no need to do a big PR campaign that shouts his contributions from the mountaintops, but his presence or his money could spark an underground PR campaign that could really help. People who benefit might speak up about it, and organizations might do the same.

This kind of work could help to imply that O'Reilly really cares about the people he's harmed, and that could remove the taint of anger people have about this issue.

When to Start

The sooner that O'Reilly starts on this reputation campaign, the better. Even now, reporters are looking for more examples of things he said that aren't quite true, and the more he responds to those accusations with threats, the worse it might get. By putting this plan in place now, he could get the recovery that, up to now, he's only dreamed of.

Did I miss any steps? Please share them in the comments section. 

Reviewed by author: Ashley Adams

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