Mel Gibson has already begun to atone publicly for the anti-Semitic tirade he unleashed while being arrested last week on a drunk-driving charge in Malibu, Calif. "I want to apologize specifically to everyone in the Jewish community for the vitriolic and harmful words that I said," the Passion of the Christ director said in a statement, adding that he would like to meet with Jewish leaders to "discern the appropriate path for healing."
But if he is to recover the goodwill of the public at large, and the Jewish and Hollywood communities specifically, Gibson has a long road ahead, say several image makers. The arduous path to redemption looks something like this:
1) Apologize to the people who write your paychecks: When New York Yankee slugger Jason Giambi was accused of using steroids, he expressed remorse first to his bosses, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner and the team's coaches. By staying in the organization's good graces, Giambi was able to stay on the playing field and win back fan support. "You've got to get to the people making decisions about your career," says Chris Lehane, onetime spinmeister for the Clinton White House. Gibson has already apologized to Disney, the studio releasing his film Apocalypto in December. He should keep on reaching out to his professional contacts, Lahane says. Gibson needs to show that he cares about their investment in him.
2) Apologize to your public. Rinse. Repeat. "Our country doesn't like its celebrities to be hate-mongers," says Howard Rubenstein, who has handled publicity for clients like Naomi Campbell, Leona Helmsley (and TIME magazine). "The public is quick to forgive and forget, but in this case, he may need to ask for forgiveness repeatedly." Gibson has already started this process, issuing two statements within days of the offending comments, the second more specific and remorseful than the first.
3) Go find yourself. Gibson has begun, he says, "an ongoing program of recovery" for his alcoholism, but he also needs to seek help from a religious or mental health counselor in understanding what made him blurt out comments to an arresting officer like "the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." "This anger spewed from a depth somewhere," says Dale Olson, who was once a publicist for Rock Hudson and Steve McQueen. "He's got to wring his hands and ask himself, 'Why did I do this?'"
4) Bare soul on camera. Once he has done the requisite soul-searching in private, Gibson should go beyond written statements and get in front of a camera to reaffirm his apology, says Lehane. "You need the emotional element that TV provides. That allows you to begin the process of turning the page."
5) Be a do-gooder. Through philanthropy, public appearances and film-making, Gibson has many avenues to express his remorse in deed, as well as word. "Maybe he goes to Israel or makes a powerful film about Israel," says Michael Sitrick, who has managed p.r. crises for Rush Limbaugh, Halle Berry and the Los Angeles Dodgers. "Maybe he does something with the Museum of Tolerance. But he has to show, not tell us, that he's sorry."
6) Stay the course. Fifteen years after junk-bond pioneer Michael Milken went to prison for securities fraud, he is still slowly rebuilding his image as a philanthropist in the fields of education and medical research. Gibson may have a similarly long haul. His comments are, for many Jews, a third strike. The first strike came from comments Gibson's father made denying the Holocaust, the second from depictions of Jews in his film The Passion in what many saw as a negative light. "When you do something that plays into a preconception, you have to recognize that it will be a long-term battle to recover," says Lehane.
7) Mean it. Every publicist interviewed for this story agrees that Gibson's image can only be redeemed if he truly is sorry for the comments he made. "It takes a lot of discipline to recover from something like this," says Lehane. "Generally, you have to actually be sorry."