Whitney Danhauer

Spin Sucks Question: Why Do Smart People Do Dumb Things?

By: Whitney Danhauer | March 22, 2019 | 
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public relationsEvery time there’s a celebrity scandal, my first thought is, “I wonder how their public relations team is going to handle this.”

Last week, celebrities Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were indicted in a racketeering scandal involving college admissions.

They, among several other wealthy parents, paid money to a college admissions consultant, Rick Singer, who finagled ways to get their children into college without ever actually doing any of the work.

Lori Loughlin coughed up $500,000 to have her two daughters accepted to USC.

Singer then paid off various other people such as athletics directors and coaches to get them in.

Loughlin’s situation was made worse when her daughter popped up in videos on social media, saying things like she didn’t really care about school, and only wanted to be there for the parties and tailgates.

Not a good look for anyone, let alone a kid who didn’t rightfully earn her spot.

Because I couldn’t get it off my mind and read every article I could get my hands on, I decided (thanks to the suggestion of Ms. Deirdre Lopian) this week’s #SpinSucksQuestion should touch on the scandal.

So I turned to my favorite communications community, and asked:

What causes smart people to do dumb things? As communicators and public relations pros, what would you advise them to do in this situation?

Here are your answers.

Are They Distracted?

Chris Williams, from Planet Magpie, thinks distraction plays a hand in a lot of dumb decisions:

As I’m considered a “smart person” who’s also a communicator, I think on things like this way too much. Most often, I would say smart people do dumb things…when they’re distracted. Not just “ooh shiny” distracted, but “I’m devoting my thought processes to another task” distracted. In such a state, it’s easy to rubber-stamp something to which you don’t want to (or can’t) devote brainpower.

Now, in terms of advice? I don’t know the ins and outs on this scandal, but I have advised several customers when they made a sales blunder or published content which offended customers. To them, I said: Own it, apologize, and make good. Often, a simple straightforward apology, with some effort to rectify the offense, is all you need. For example, sending out a fresh email to ALL customers (not just those offended) laying out clearly what happened, your apology, and your next action. It worked for me; said business salvaged almost all of the offended customers’ relationships.

Can We Blame a Simple Lack of Ethics?

Christopher S. Penn thinks ego is to blame:

Motivation is the engine. Intelligence is the steering. Ethics is the GPS. When smart people do dumb things, it’s because they’re focused so much on the engine and steering, they lose sight of where they’re supposed to be going…unless they have no ethics to begin with.

Heather Feimster was on the same page:

Oof. My stomach hurts just trying to unpack all of the themes that this has brought to light. As far as what causes bad decisions, I agree with Christopher S. Penn—on an individual level, it comes back to character, integrity, ethics and sound advice. From a societal level, the obsession with status, lack of accountability for those who make bad choices (or the celebration of such behavior), and a focus on the “me” over others, leads to short-sighted and narcissistic decisions with rippling consequences for those around them.

A Public Relations Quandry: To Apologize or Not to Apologize

Whether or not a celebrity apologizes after a big mistake is never a sure way to forgiveness.

Will people think they’re sincere?

Is it going to make things worse?

Reese Spykerman believes a sincere apology can’t hurt:

I see this as an opportunity to rebrand.

In addition to a sincere apology, they can make a conscious decision to open up discussion to a frank discourse on inequality, systemic catering toward the wealthy, and how we’re part and parcel of that system, and have decided they can no longer, in good conscience, remain complicit. And make their brand about straight talk about this stuff.

Of course, it’s a rare bird willing to do that and burn their own houses down.

Peter Gault, on the other hand, doesn’t think an apology of any sort will do any good:

I’m not a public relations pro. I’m an internet radio show and podcast host and producer. The things that play well, play the best, and are very well received, are direct, honest, clear, open. Apologies for exposed behavior like this never play well. No one cares. The reason the focus is on the celebs is because that storyline sells way better and faster than putting the school and the school’s leadership front and center. The celebs are parents with means, and decided to do what they could for their kids that wouldn’t make it otherwise. Those celebs should own this—with anything beyond a “my bad” being completely superfluous.

The public loves stumbles, failures, disasters. It’s what sells. But, an apology (yes, I know it will be made), will mean nothing—and really isn’t the story.  And frankly, this kind of thing, especially when compared to everything else that’s been in the news, and continues to make ‘front pages’, will be old-news by the end of this week, if not sooner. Case in point: Louie C.K. has already been making the stand-up circuit again.

Maybe It’s Just Because They Can

One of the more disappointing options is that maybe these parents did it simply because their wealth made them think they could.

Cari Bugbee said:

I  assume the reason people do unethical things (unless they are sociopaths) is that (a) they think they can get away with it, (b) they feel desperate or out of viable options, and (c) they think it’s not really that bad. It’s like a white lie—not a “real” lie. Nobody will be hurt!

In the college scandal, I’m sure different parents had different motivations. Some are probably used to buying anything and everything. They assume everyone is for sale. You just have to find out the price.

Others (perhaps Felicity Huffman) thought that getting a little extra time for her daughter to take the SAT was no big deal. Thousands of kids do this every day! If she had gone through more machinations, she probably could have made that happen without help. She’s just a busy person, so all she did was hire an expert to expedite that process. No big deal, right? No different than hiring a personal shopper to bring you outfits when you don’t have time to shop yourself.

Where Do You Stand?

We’ll never know the real reason any of them did this.

That’s something even their public relations team won’t answer.

They might apologize, and they might simply maintain their silence in hopes this will all be old news by this time next week. (It probably will.)

It’s disappointing and unfair to those kids who didn’t get into the college of choice because someone else came from a wealthier family.

I want to know your opinions though.

You can leave them in the comments down below or you can join our Spin Sucks Slack community.

It’s free and filled with lots of awesome, incredibly smart people.

Until next time, folks!

About Whitney Danhauer


Whitney is living in Central Kentucky with her husband, Michael and her daughter, Evie Rose. She's an avid reader, an even more avid movie watcher, and loves nothing more than a well-placed pop culture reference. By day she writes about all things communications for Spin Sucks, by night she writes about whatever she wants. Her first novel, Good Riddance, was released in October of 2015.