Lessons for Billy Bush and Donald Trump on apologizing fast and bringing up the bad news before new employers ask
It took Billy Bush more than half a year, but he’s finally figured it out.
The former “Access Hollywood” reporter and “Today Show” host made headlines after the leaking of a tape last fall that featured him egging Donald Trump on as the then-reality TV star bragged about his prowess with women. The now immortal “Grab Them By the Pussy” remark, made in 2005, almost sunk the President’s election campaign, though Trump successfully dismissed it as “locker room talk.”
While Bush swiftly apologized, he was fired from his “Today Show” gig. He broke his subsequent silence in a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, telling the trade publication that he wished he’d acted differently. “Looking back upon what was said on that bus, I wish I had changed the topic. [Trump] liked TV and competition,” he said. “I could’ve said, ‘Can you believe the ratings on whatever?’ But I didn’t have the strength of character to do it.”
Workplace etiquette experts say that diverting attention is a smart thing to do if you’re in a situation where a co-worker makes a remark that can be construed as offensive, homophobic, sexist or racist. “He absolutely should have disengaged,” says executive coach Debra Benton. “Trump shouldn’t have initiated the topic but Bush shouldn’t have set fire to the conversation by laughing about it.”
Here is my statement. pic.twitter.com/WAZiGoQqMQ
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 8, 2016
You can change the topic to literally anything else, but the key is doing it with a slight smile and relaxed demeanor. “When someone makes a comment that isn’t appropriate to discuss, I will say, with a smile on my face, ‘Don’t go there! Don’t go there!’” says Barbara Pachter, author of “The Communication Clinic.”
Bush’s confidants reportedly feel that he got the worst end of the stick— after all, though he wasn’t the one that made the remarks, he got fired. Now, Trump lives in the White House. But etiquette experts don’t have much sympathy for him because he was an active participant. “Didn’t your mother use to say ‘if your friend jumps off a cliff, are you going to jump too?’” says Benton, author of “The Leadership Mind Switch.” “That’s the same in grownup life.”
While Trump’s handling of the fallout—he famously brought women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to pre-debate press conference— has been criticized, he did manage to largely downplay the brouhaha. The key is apologizing right away and adding a note of sincerity to it. “Be sincere and never do it again or you won’t be trusted,” says Benton. She also thinks you should only apologize once—as Trump did—because you don’t want to drag the issue on.
While Bush waited more than seven months before speaking publicly after the situation again, bringing it up pre-emptively is smart if you’re looking for a new job and have a past public black mark. Experts say you should ask if a new employer has questions about the incident and then explain it non-defensively. “I would explain that I learnt a lesson from that experience and would shut the conversation done if possible,” says Pachter.
As Benton notes: “Bring up any bad news first so you can better control how you explain it.”
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