This article is about being the Front Man. The Front Woman. The Front Person. Please don’t look at the gender-use in the term and say I’m forgetting folks? Just getting that part out of the way now. Plus, this is going to be kind of long. So, on with the show.
This is an article about the Front Man and How to Apologize. I was on my way to writing an article about being the Front Man in an organization when the very smart Chuck Wendig pointed out some comparisons on Twitter that I could not ignore. Much appreciation for the inspiration here to Chuck because he had a good point.
This week there have been lots of apologies, and not all of them have been good.
The world of media seems to be the week of scandals the last few days. Paula Deen throws around racist slurs and then apologizes about having to apologize (in between still being a racist). Kickstarter has to shut down a ‘seducer’s guide book’ (aka how to be a creepy creeper in three easy steps) and has to apologize when they don’t quite get to it in time. And then there’s Gabe of Penny Arcade, apologizing for blowing his stack on Twitter over being one of the least trans-sensitive human beings in the public geek eye that I’ve ever seen. It’s been a week for apologies, folks. Or rather, for attempted apologies.
So let me pose a question: did folks forget lately that people are listening?
In the age of the internet, the world isn’t just about sharing information, it’s about sharing opinion. With the touch of a few buttons or keys on a keyboard, people can share their opinions on whatever comes up in the media. More than that, media is now created on different platforms than every before. I am old enough (brace yourself, that’s right!) to remember a time without the internet, when you couldn’t just turn around and get an immediate response from thousands of people on what you’ve said. However those days are way behind us and now, one word in the wrong direction can get someone negative responses all over the internet. For some people, that’s only negative responses within your own friend circle or community. For others, your reach is a lot larger.
The Front Person for a company, or a company in itself, has a public image it cultivates. And if it’s run by anyone savvy at all in the ways of business, that public image is crafted around the brand someone wants others to perceive. Sound calculated? It is, but just as calculated as how an individual wants to be seen among their friends. A Front Person or a company just has a lot more people watching, and are held accountable for their words and actions by lots of folks either as fans or consumers (or both). To understand that is to navigate the waters of business with reputation intact.
And what reputation? Whatever one a person wants to cultivate. Some folks just want to be themselves and be out there in the public eye as themselves, barring little to no agenda outside “Hey, I want to do cool things and share them!” or “My company is making quality products to share with our consumers, take a look at the great stuff we’ve got!” I won’t get into the more negatively calculating (aka: manipulative in the bad way) folks or businesses, because we’d get off topic. The point here is, with the internet as a forum, the message people put out there reaches so many more folks. And if that message includes something hateful, or even ignorant, or badly spoken, you will get in a whole lot of trouble. Fast.
Unless that’s the image you want. Unless you want to be ‘the dick’. Or the provocateur. Or just ‘that guy’.
In an age when it takes a lot to cut through all the noise of a million voices all jumping for social media attention, inflammatory views will certainly rise to the top. Is that person being inflammatory on purpose? Who knows. Unless you’re privy to strategy, you can’t know for sure. But a good hint is to look at how the person or company handles their apologies after something ‘bad’ happens. If an apology happens at all.
Example 1: Paula Deen gets caught spewing racist garbage. She puts out a forty-five second video that isn’t about how what she said was wrong. Instead, it’s about how sorry she is about having to apologize. An article recently pointed out that she’s like the thief who isn’t sorry they stole, but rather sorry that they were caught. That is the perfect analogy for this kind of response, and gives a hint to how this person does business in the first place. They aren’t apologizing for their actions, but for the fact that their public image has taken a hit. PS: People don’t seem to be falling for it, and Deen was let go from her Food Network contract.
Example 2: Kickstarter had a project funded on it that was, essentially, a guide on how to seduce women. Among it’s creepier implications, along with it just being kind of ridiculous and desperate to begin with, its a book written by a person whose Reddit posts have been tracked back to include implications of forcing women into sexual contact against their will. I’ll say that in plainer terms: the guy has implied previously that it’s okay to aggress on women sexually to get what you want. The book was funded but Kickstarter backers raised red flags just before the money was about to get sent through at the end of the project. Kickstarter didn’t stop it and the money went through. However, they issued a very seriously worded apology to their audience, recognizing that the project itself was a problem. They not only amended their terms to keep such ‘seduction guides’ from being put up on Kickstarter in the future, they also donated money to an organization that helps those harmed by sexual assault. They didn’t mealy mouth. They said it simply: we were wrong.
A pro tip on knowing when folks don’t mean their apologies? Check for the passive language. “Mistakes Were Made” is my favorite. Nobody there is pointed to to take responsibility whatsoever. Mistakes were made? By whom? Who made them and how? What is being done to fix the problem for the future? Beuler? Anyone?
Example 3: And here’s where things get complicated. In the geek community, Penny Arcade is a serious powerhouse. It’s a web comic, a brand of it’s own, and also the power behind the Pax conventions around the world. It has clout, not only in financial sense, but in influencing thought among it’s fans by view of the mouthpiece of their web comic, con and blog. So when one of it’s frontmen, Gabe (aka Mike Krahulik), goes ahead and says things that are hurtful to the trans community – after having a history of opening his mouth and hurtful things falling out- people take notice. He has self-proclaimed himself ‘a dick’ in blog posts when talking about how he speaks, so in his choice to just say what he wants, he insulted a hell of a lot of folks. And probably cost his company a lot of business in the process. Many who were previously unimpressed by the Pax frontrunner’s handling of the unimpressive ‘dick wolf’ controversy (if you don’t know what that is, check this out for a breakdown, or don’t if you want to avoid face-palming at the impressive insanity) have said enough is enough over this, including the Fullbright Company (creators of the video game Gone Home) who has chosen not to attend Pax over this. They won’t be the only ones.
So Gabe came out and apologized. And that assuaged a lot of folks. Now for me? I sat back and read the apology and something bothered me. It was a single line at the bottom. Gabe says that he should have stepped away rather than continuing to engage when he was angry, because he was angry at being called names. That’s effectively what started this. He didn’t like being called a name, and got mad. In the wake of the reaction to his words, Gabe then says he’s worried about how this will affect other businesses attached to his name, saying:
I know personally I’m an incredibly damaged individual. I’m not really sure I’m the best foundation for all this other stuff. I don’t want to be the reason people don’t go to PAX or don’t support Child’s Play or don’t watch the shows on PATV. I hate the idea that because I can’t stop being an asshole I hurt all these other amazing things.
It was that line that made me take pause. Can’t stop being an asshole. Can’t. Not won’t. Can’t. As if the option has been taken out of his hands. That, sadly, is not the case. It is not the case for anyone. People choose what they say, even in the heat of anger. People choose how they act, even if they are damaged. People choose to be hurtful or to hold their tongues.
Mistakes were made. I can’t. Passive language.
Being a Front Person is hard. You’re in the public eye, you’ve got folks watching your every move. You have the right to freedom of speech, just like any other person in a free country. Yet if you build something, build a brand, and use that as a place from which to launch your fortunes and then build a fan following from it, you are responsible for the words that come out of your mouth. You are responsible for what you put forward, for better or worse, as any human being is responsible for their words and actions. Except you have a wider audience you’re reaching and therefore, in my opinion, cannot afford to be passive in considering your choices. Mistakes were not made – you made them. And you can learn from them, as Kickstarter did in their respectful and graceful apology, or stand by what you’ve said and be held to account for it by people who disagree with you. There isn’t such a thing as I Can’t and that doesn’t stand as an apology.
Now you might ask: where do you get off saying these things? Well, it all comes back to one thing. I’m now a writer, and a blogger, and a person out there writing things that lots of people read. Sure, not like Penny Arcade, no way like that. But apparently, folks read this blog (hi out there!) and they’ve read my work. I have people I talk to at conventions, on Twitter, on Facebook and in my personal and professional life. And every day, I craft my own image as Shoshana – a writer, a game designer, and a person just trying to be a geek in this crazy geeky world. And I don’t believe in the word can’t as an excuse if I hurt someone with my words. I speak about a lot of topics: game design, larping and feminist thought especially. If in any of those conversations I hurt someone, I hope that I will have the where-with-all to stand up and not say mistakes were made in a defensive way or I couldn’t help myself, but instead say the words hardest but most important to say in this world sometimes:
I am sorry. I was wrong.
I can only expect the same from people whose voice rings louder than my own.
UPDATE: I’ll point out one update that came in while I was formulating this article. Gabe has added an addition to his apology. He’s also donated $20,000 to The Trevor Project in response to the people his words may have hurt. And that’s a start in the right direction, just as Kickstarter responded by recompense to a charity called RAINN. I’ll let that stand for what it is and not beat the dead horse. Let’s hope this kind of thing stops staining the Pax community again and again.