The public discourse associated with the death of young Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman trial has provided the greatest example of the difference between the court of law and the court of public opinion. The rules in one are defined, clear and final. In the other arena, where virtually everyone’s opinion seems to carry some level of weight, there are no rules. It is murky, noisy and fluid. Now that the trial is over, the Martin and Zimmerman families appear to be navigating around the verdict. Meanwhile, observers question whether Mr. Zimmerman can repair his image and move forward.
As a crisis manager, it’s my role to find the best ways for damaged individuals or organizations to identify, understand and take the steps that demonstrate an authentic interest in making things right again.
Some issues are easier than others. I have learned that most situations can be repaired when done for the right reasons and with integrity.
Matters associated with racism are complicated, emotionally charged and almost impossible to repair because they are associated with core values and judgments.
Take Paula Deen’s recent controversy. She acknowledged that she used the “N” word, but she defended her behavior by virtue of the circumstances – that of being held at gunpoint by a black man. We are to infer that in her mind, because the robber was black that, “of course” she would automatically and appropriately defer to the English language’s most terrible word.
The public career of comedian Michael Richards, of “Seinfeld” fame, was permanently derailed in 2006 after his hateful rant with an African American audience member. Mel Gibson’s star shattered after his in-depth, anti-Semitic comments went viral.
Unlike reputation-damaging events such as arrests, drunk driving and other blunders in judgment, incidents associated with racist thought or deed are not easily forgiven by the public.
Mr. Zimmerman was found not guilty by a court of law. But immediately he received a life sentence from the court of public opinion.
In an effort to mitigate the public court’s verdict, Robert Zimmerman has traversed the news talk circuit to defend his brother as any loyal sibling would do. However, his comments that George Zimmerman has no regrets and that he needs his gun now more than ever, further jeopardize his brother’s chances for some level of public parole.
Sabryna Fulton and Tracy Martin have made media appearances too. Days after the verdict, they said they were using their faith as a way to find forgiveness. Perhaps unwittingly, they provided an opportunity for Mr. Zimmerman.
This weekend our local newspaper quoted a crisis manager who advised that for Mr. Zimmerman to begin fixing his reputation, he should “speak honestly” to an unbiased interviewer like Oprah. He is quoted saying that people want to hear Mr. Zimmerman answer “hard- hitting” questions such as whether he is a racist.
I disagree. Sitting down with Oprah is blatantly disingenuous for both Mr. Zimmerman and for Oprah, if she were to snare such an interview. And I think it's safe to say, we already know how he would answer what I would characterize as throwaway questions.
Mr. Zimmerman needs to be realistic about his future and determine what he wants. Does he want to remain in hiding? Does he want to do some very hard work so he can be free in society? Is he interested in contributing toward helping heal a nation hurting? At some point, and with the right objective and authenticity, he could begin to repair his image. Here are some initial thoughts.
First, he should direct his brother to demonstrate empathy for the grieving parents. Their son is dead. Obviously Trayvon’s parents have a different perspective than the Zimmermans. Robert Zimmerman’s comments are heartless, hurtful and help no one, most especially his brother.
He should direct the police to keep his gun. Like the “stand your ground” laws that span our nation, just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right or smart. Make public that he is not reclaiming his weapon because of what has always been undisputed – it was used to take a life.
Then, take the hardest step of all -- ask for forgiveness from Sabryna Fulton and Tracy Martin. In private.
He should acknowledge their grief and his remorse. The circumstances don’t matter in this step. He killed a human being and that alone should weigh heavily on his soul.
Say you are sorry but not to Oprah, not to Anderson Cooper and not to Sean Hannity. The act of repairing a reputation is long and difficult, and a process that is best achieved without a public monitor throughout.
Tell them you are sorry without television cameras, reporters, Ben Crump or Al Sharpton in the room. Help Trayvon’s parents heal. Let them decide if and when they will forgive you and if they want to publicly share your attempt to seek forgiveness. Again, this is a long and complex process. But the actions of Trayvon Martin's parents will provide the validation he needs to transition back into society and the public attention that will surely follow.
That is an act of humanity. That is an act of integrity. That is how one can begin to repair a damaged reputation.