We can only wonder about the series of decisions that led to the fateful US-student-stuck-in-a-vagina-sculpture incident in Germany this week. One thing is sure: this kid is famous, but not for the best of reasons. One also might wonder, as soon as his name and personal information are made public, how anyone could take him seriously after an incident like this? We can assume that this guy was studying SOMETHING in college, and probably aspires to be employed at some point in his career. And unless it's performing stunts in movies or comedy routines, this type of famous is not usually a great career move. So, if you find yourself in a similar incident of public shame or embarrassment, how do you recover?
Strategy One: Celebrate it.
Publish the article on your personal site, blog, Facebook, Twitter, and claim responsibility fully and completely. In this case, because it's mostly stupid-funny and no substantial harm is done to people or property, approaching it with a comic light and the "Have I got a story for you!" approach, might be the best bet.
Put the photo on your Facebook banner and caption it appropriately. Perhaps a nice "The worst decision I ever made" or "Mom would be so proud" line would highlight your sense of humor and ability to reflect on your actions. These are critical characteristics to demonstrate in an embarrassing screw-up of public magnitude.
Strategy Two: Own It.
If your story is more damaging or shameful, or you did serious harm, or you don't have the personality to carry out the "Celebrate It" strategy, then a simple acknowledgement of the incident, along with an appropriate level of embarrassment or apology is in order. Don't deny, hide, or deflect; just own it. We see this when CEOs are busted for white-collar crime or adultery, they publish an appropriately apologetic letter, respond to questions, and move on.
Strategy Three: Leverage it.
This is "owning it" with a twist. In this case, you could use your incident as a platform, a crusade. Are you getting flak for being disrespectful to women and public art? Then immediately start a nonprofit and dedicate it to promoting feminist art, and campaign for donations on Kickstarter. Call up the German papers and offer to give an interview about what you're doing next to make up for your mistake.
Strategy Four: Ignore it and Change the Subject.
Sometimes, the cringe of your act is too much to bear and you have no desire to own it or celebrate it (or maybe it wasn't your fault!). In this case, go with a quiet acknowledgement of the incident with a change of subject, something like "Heh, yeah, that was quite the trip to Germany. So I've heard great things about the direction your company is taking this year, tell me more about your plans for 2015."
The key to this strategy is to redirect people to the more professionally interesting things about you or about them, what you would want them to focus on instead of your embarrassing incident. Knowing that people are going to Google you when something public and awful happens, make sure your online presence highlights the characteristics and qualities that you want people to associate with you instead. Just started a small business or are you looking to get a job? Make sure your profiles on social media are up to date and include examples and proof of your skills, stellar qualities, and references. When people are done laughing or shaking their head at your expense, then they'll be left with all the other good stuff about you.
"You have to be your own PR machine and learn to strategize in good times and in bad," says Lisa Gettings, Content Strategist at the University of Washington, If you don't provide information about you that you want people to see or know, then others will make up the story for you. Actions that don't lie but that use the attention on you to further your greater goals are best. How can you both acknowledge your incident and turn it toward a positive set of professional characteristics? How can you use it to drive forward in a new direction?
It Takes Time
Remember that with time, everything blows over. What seems like a career-ruining move now will probably be largely forgotten in a year. The story will remain but it will lose its embarrassing edge, and you'll be able to reinvent yourself as the months pass. Nothing is permanent, not even that soul-crushing feeling of red-faced shame you feel now.