How to Recover after a Blunder

Eventually, every leader will make a mistake for which he or she must apologize. The screw-up might be personal (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s extramarital escapades), corporate (TEPCO president Masataka Shimizu’s mishandling of his company’s nuclear power plant crisis), or simply banal (inadvertently insulting a colleague’s wardrobe).

The rash of mea culpas we’ve seen in recent months — culminating this week in Congressman Anthony Weiner’s press conference to explain his tawdry tweets — had brought to mind a mistake-fueled media frenzy from my past: Howard Dean’s famous scream, and the lessons we learned from it.

As New Hampshire communications director for Dean’s 2004 presidential bid, I watched on TV as he gave that now-infamous concession speech after the Iowa caucuses. Disappointed with his third-place finish, he decided to rally the troops with his bold vision for a national comeback. “We’re going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota…” As the list of states got longer and Dean’s voice became more feverish, our press intern Greg laid it out: “He looks like the Incredible Hulk.” This was not good.

When the campaign plane touched down in New Hampshire at 3 a.m., we greeted the candidate with a rally and Joan Jett concert at a freezing air hangar in Portsmouth. But we knew the “Dean Scream” was going to become a problem. In truth, he didn’t do anything wrong: the room in Iowa was painfully loud; he was only screaming to be heard above the crowd. But that’s not how it played (again and again) on cable TV, which turned a minor screw-up into a media maelstrom. So how do you move forward?

First, you have to acknowledge the elephant in the room. If you’re running a business and something publicly embarrassing has transpired, no one can focus on real issues (sales targets, expansion plans, the quarterly financials) as long as they’re fixated on the error. It might temporarily feel better to slink off but to admit the mistake expedites the recovery process. (Weiner could have saved himself a world of hurt by admitting upfront he sent the naughty tweet, rather than letting it play out in the media for a week.)

Next — if appropriate — try to laugh at yourself. That gives others (much-needed) permission to do the same. Dean went on David Letterman and subjected himself to a scream-related “Top 10” list of campaign turnaround strategy suggestions. (The first was “switch to decaf.”) After all, nobody wants a leader who takes himself too seriously.

For the complete article, visit the Harvard Business Review.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, the National Park Service, and Yale University. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.