Damage Control 101: The Fine Art of Covering Your A**
So there’s a reason for this post, and thankfully at the moment, it’s not because I made and a** of myself (or at least I don’t think I have, yet). Pardon the language, but sometimes there is no better way to capture a predicament than with terms we actually use in everyday life.
Not to beat the proverbial dead horse even more, but after witnessing the way The Story Siren (TSS) blogger handled the entire plagiarism scandal she invoked, and being alerted to her week-long series of guest-posts on plagiarism and seeing the reactions, I felt compelled to dredge this all up one last time. Then I got a pingback on one of my posts that lead me to No, plagiarism doesn’t just “happen,” and after reading it and many of the comments on TSS, I thought there were a lot of astute suggestions about how to get yourself off the hot seat without fanning the fire.
My point is not to assail Kristi—I haven’t lost a moment’s sleep about all that. She looks like she’s trying hard to rectify this, even if her approach has been sloppy and fraught with errors, by her own admission. That’s actually my point: the errors after-the-fact. We can all learn from them.
Know the background for this post? Skip to CYA.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, most of the salient details and links can be found in my post, Now it’s MY turn for a “clarification”. Then yesterday, book bloggers tweeted about Kristi Diehm’s audacity in posting about plagiarism on TSS.
Readers of TSS were left scratching their heads once again, for many reasons:
- They couldn’t believe she’d bring up the topic again after it had just died down from early April, when they were already perplexed by her nebulous posts and apologies.
- Many were floored that a plagiarist would have the gumption to post about plagiarism—even if they’re guest posts—especially after she deleted her own rant about plagiarism from months ago when the you-know-what hit the fan.
- The first post on plagiarism (on May 21, 2012) featuring Sarah Cross dropped with no introductory comments or any explanation for those who do know what happened last month. Kristi claimed it was a blog scheduling glitch—or that’s what she called it. (I’ve never had problems with my scheduled posts, but anyway).
- Then Kristi backdated the “intro” post and published it after the Sarah Cross post dropped, and oy vey, did the comments section explode. The intro post came a little too late and people are still not happy with the I don’t know how it happened rhetoric. I get that. But moving on.
Ah, CYA. A favorite term of my particular branch of Corporate America, where everything is turned into an acronym (or to be pedantic about it, an initialism in this case).
CYA = Cover Your A** and is used as both noun and verb, FYI. (Couldn’t resist. ;)) That’s the point of saved email threads, PDFs and documentation, checks and balances, archives and the lot. You do it all to CYA.
CYA-related actions are generally thought of as preventative measures that are rarely actually needed, but sometimes, as in the case referenced above, you need CYA of the damage control type. And let’s face it, outside Corporate America, with the Tiger Woodses, John Edwardses, and Bill Clintons of the world—damage control is more often the case. A CYAA, or Cover Your A** After, if you will.
So when you don’t have a PR person to buffer you from your stupidity and someone else’s cognizance of it, what do you do? Should you ever find yourself in the middle of a brouhaha that you caused, here are some tips to help dig yourself out—and maybe even come out smelling better than you did going in.
Note: To illustrate the fallout connected with not employing the tips below, I’ve included comments that originally appeared on TSS posts related to the topic, but without links back to that blog, for obvious reasons.
CYA Without Digging a Deeper Hole
UPDATE: May 24, 2012: Related reading: The Art of the (Non) Apology, posted May 23, 2012 by Beautifully Invisible.
1. OWN IT.
You did it. Or someone you manage did it. There is no way around it the truth. Accept this fact and and talk to a therapist if you feel suicidal or depressed. I’m not joking, people. Everyone has a different threshold for confrontation and guilt. If you can’t manage on your own, get help.
“Nobody likes to take accountability, but true leaders will, and true leaders do. That is what separates a strong person from a weak one, what separates a champion from a chump.
You’ve yet to do it.”
Comment by Shiloh Walker on TSS | 5.22.2012
“For four months, she mined the material from other bloggers and posted the ideas and slightly modified content as her own. This is different from a one-time mistake or error in judgment. This is deliberate. Own up, Kristi. Own up. And followers, think with your brains instead of your misguided hearts.”
Comment by Dawn on TSS | 4.24.2012
2. Apologize directly to the injured party and ask how to make amends immediately.
Don’t wait til you’re busted, don’t delay hoping it won’t be noticed, because if you noticed, someone else will too. Out yourself, in other words. It might make you feel like crap, but it will buy you points in the integrity and honesty departments. And then you’ve got no skeletons in your closet.
“…what rubs me the wrong way was how the situation was handled. Not only is this apology about three months late, but I can’t help questioning the motives behind it and if it was only written because she was exposed.
‘it seems that all of that work may have been lost in this mistake.’ That sounded like she was more worried about losing her long-established reputation than standing up for plagiarism or acknowledging her mistakes.
‘To Grit and Glamour and Beautifully Invisible, I extend my deepest apologies. Please do not judge the book blogging community by my mistakes.’
All of a sudden the original victims turned into vicious monsters who hate the entire book blogging community. I’m starting to feel very sorry for the other party.”
Comment by Lilian on TSS | 4.25.2012
3. Apologize sincerely, and offer no excuses unless there is a truly legitimate one.
What does that mean? In the case of plagiarism, which is never, ever accidental, it’s this: I’m sorry. I took your work and passed it off as my own. I’m guilty of plagiarism. I accept full responsibility for the consequences of my actions. Full. Stop. If there is a legitimate reason, then it’s something more like this: I’m sorry. My employee took your work and passed it off as ours, and I did not do the proper due diligence to prevent it. But we are guilty of plagiarism, nonetheless. My carelessness is the reason why this happened and I accept full responsibility and any consequences.
“So will you be explaining this week how [plagiarism] was ‘tricky’? Because I fail to see it explained here.”
Comment by Phillip Weiss on TSS | 5.21.2012
“I commend you for trying to fix your mistakes, but what really irks me the most is when you say that everyone has walked the plagairism line at one point in their lives. How do you know that? You aren’t everyone. And does that sentence help justify what you did?”
Comment by Felicia on TSS | 5.21.2012
4. If your infraction is now public and there’s major fallout, do not respond hastily. But respond.
Try not to delay any longer than necessary, but take the time you need to craft a measured, adult response. This is important for a few reasons:
A) You need to let your head clear so you don’t send off an emotionally-charged or defensive response.
B) It gives you the opportunity to address what people are writing/saying about the issue, as well as issue an apology.
C) It shows that you accept responsibility and you’re not just pretending it didn’t happen, which adds insult to injury.
Case in point:
“Let’s try this again. I owe all of you, the blogging community and my readers a much better explanation and apology. My first apology was written out of emotion. I should have given myself the time to reflect before responding. I didn’t do that and I tend to let my emotions rule.”
Kristi Diehm in her post, Clarification, on TSS | 4.24.2012
5. Have someone—a mentor, friend in the industry, or an attorney—review your response before releasing it.
This is critical. If you leave something out of your response—like a sincere apology to the injured party with no excuses, or how you plan to make amends—it makes the situation even worse. People are actually quite forgiving, unless you act like you’re the victim instead of the other way around. Get someone else to read your post, email, or letter to ensure it comes across coherent, remorseful, and respectful, and without spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. Nothing worse than attempting to fix something and further damaging your credibility in the process.
6. Posting an apology/response on a blog? DO NOT turn off the comment functionality, and be very careful with comment moderation.
This will incite even more anger against you because it makes you look like you don’t want to accept responsibility or hear the truth. If you’ve always allowed comments, now is not the time to stop. It not only silences the people who are mad, but the people who might want to support you too. Plus, if you take away the ability to comment on your post, people will simply take to Twitter or your Facebook page to share their thoughts. Since you screwed up, you need to hear the feedback anyway. While some comments sting and are downright mean, for every one of those, there are three that are logical, or have ideas about how to make the situation better.
“I’m probably wasting my time posting this… either it will get deleted, or it won’t get through. Although I do plan on reposting my comments to my blog, so hey…My question would be this…are you going to keep comments unmoderated & undeleted…because there’s no denying you deleted comments. I’m screencapping this and I’ll post it to my blog.”
Comment by Shiloh Walker on TSS | 5.21.2012
UPDATE: May 22,2012: The following addendum about comment moderation was suggested by AztecLady in the comments below, and I think she makes several strong points, so I wanted to call attention to it here: “If you moderate comments and then reply to same, make sure to reply to all of them–or at least address all the issues raised in another post. Replying only to people making innocuous comments not related to your previous dishonesty, while continuing to maintain radio silence over those hard questions, is not advisable. Everyone knows that, since moderated comments are approved manually, one by one, you couldn’t have possibly missed the many questions directed specifically at you, over your own actions–past and present.”
7. If you see followers or friends bullying or maligning the victims, NIP IT IN THE BUD ASAP.
Everyone one likes to have support, but an army of rabid sycophants who blame/harass/email/bully the victims for calling you out is wrong and just makes a bad situation worse. Ignoring bullying comments or tweets essentially means you are condoning bullying. Clearly, you can’t respond to every one. But you can issue a statement that the victims are not to be blamed or insulted because you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar.
“Are you ever going to tell your followers and fans that attacking the victims while trying to support you is even lower than your own despicable actions?”
Comment by AZTECLADY on TSS | 5.21.2012
“What I have NOT seen here is the level of vitriol aimed towards Kristi (the plagiarist) that was hurled at Grit and Glamour and Beautifully Invisible (the victims). I also have not seen Kristi take a stand against that sort of behavior or to condemn it in any way. In the eyes of the law, silence equals consent, and her silence on this matter is considered (by me) to be tacit approval to that sort of behavior. I find that as reprehensible and irresponsible as her original act of theft.”
Comment by Lynda the Guppy on TSS | 5.21.2012
“…while your loyal followers attack those who spoke out, and you sit silently by, you give silent permission to bully and harass. In case you weren’t aware…yes, there were attacks. Bullying emails sent to a number of the bloggers who spoke out.”
Comment by Shiloh Walker on TSS | 5.22.2012
8. Thinking of having a guest post about the subject at the core of your transgression? Tread carefully. And if you do, note that at the beginning of your post, not the end.
Using the situation to preach about how not to make the mistake you made is probably not advisable. Clearly, it did not work for you. It comes off as opportunistic and (as I said on Twitter recently), like a parent who smokes telling their child not to smoke. Unless of course, you ask the people you harmed to share their experience on your blog, as these commenters suggested:
“What I want to know is whether you included the people you plagiarized from in this week-long educational exercise? If you really want to discuss the ins/outs of plagiarism and educate your readers it would only make sense that they would be included.
I hope we’ll see some input from them on this blog. If so I think you’re on the right track and might actually be on the path to ‘blogging salvation.'”
Comment by Lauren on TSS | 5.21.2012
“Will you be having the people you plagiarized from on your ‘plagiarism week’? Wonder what they think of how you seem to be using your actions as a way to get more attention?
I, along with everyone else who used to look up to you as one of the most prominent YA book blogs, am still waiting for a heartfelt apology.”
Comment by Kelli on TSS | 5.21.2012
“I believe it’s a good idea to invite the two fashion bloggers you plagiarized from to have their say about it, here in your blog.”
Comment by Citra on TSS | 5.21.2012
If you go there, since your blog is always in your voice, if you don’t make it very clear at the top of the post that it’s someone else, it is confusing and sets the wrong precedent. Every guest post should have an intro stating that. A bio or contact info for the guest goes at the end.
9. If you’ve scheduled posts about the issue, double-check dates and times so nothing is released out of order.
Again, your credibility is at stake. If a post drops and no one knows why, or you don’t explain it, it just makes you look even more stupid. And brings on more (likely unwanted) comments.
“sorry about the confusion… there was supposed to be an introduction post before this and of course it didn’t go up as planned, this has nothing to do with imm. i have an eleven hour work day today and just noticed on my lunch that the first post didnt make it up, otherwise I would have corrected that much earlier. this is simply an education discussion on plagiarism for myself and anyone else who is interested.”
Comment by Kristi Diehm (TSS blog owner) on TSS | 5.21.2012
“You posted this AFTER the author guest post but formatted the time so it looked like you posted this first. Not cool. There was no explanation in the guest author post, leaving her to take the brunt of the comments of WTF. Again, not cool.”
Comment by Wicked Little Pixie on TSS | 5.21.2012
10. Remember that honesty is always the best policy.
When you are faced with telling the awful truth about a situation, choose the truth. No skeletons, right? The Internet lives forever, and that is no joke. You will not pull the wool over anyone’s eyes but your own. Even Kristi couldn’t erase the fact that she was very aware of the concept of plagiarism before she did it. When she deleted an older post on her blog in which she preached against plagiarism, people dug it up, courtesy of modern technology:
“Funny, I just happened to be on the Google Way Back site today and look what I came across, a post written by Kristi talking about bloggers plagiarizing. Let me quote just a bit of it for you.
‘Plagiarism is wrong. No matter how you look at it.
There is no excuse… “I didn’t know…. I didn’t mean to… I did it subconsciously.” No, you didn’t. You did know and you did mean to.
Plagiarism isn’t just copying and pasting word for word and passing it off as your own. It can be taking someones work and changing around the sentence structure, getting out your thesaurus and changing a few words here and there… basically taking the central idea tweaking it and passing it off as your own work.
It’s especially frustrating for this to happen in the blogging community.’
Oh, the irony.”
Comment by Holly on TSS | 4.27.2012
Yes, kids, honesty—not irony—is indeed the best policy when you’ve got egg on your face.