When NBC’s former chief medical editor Nancy Snyderman returned from Liberia after covering the Ebola outbreak late last year, she was stunned to see what was going on in the U.S.
“America was nuts” with fear over the outbreak, Snyderman said during a panel discussion on building resilience at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit on Wednesday. “I came back to a warped environment. I’m a really good doctor and a good person who misjudged the fear of the American public.”
Snyderman became part of the story herself when news outlets started reporting that a cameraman on her news crew in Africa had contracted Ebola while on assignment. She then caused a massive public stir when she broke a self-imposed quarantine. In March, Snyderman resigned from NBC following the controversy.
“The error I made was incorrectly using the phrase, ‘self-quarantine,’ Snyderman said. “Using the word ‘quarantine’ was really dumb on my part. The correct phrase was that I was ‘under surveillance.’ I take responsibility of the fact that when that word was tossed out, I should’ve corrected it on the spot, but I didn’t.”
Judy Smith, the founder of crisis-management firm Smith & Company and the inspiration for the Olivia Pope character on the ABC drama Scandal, said Snyderman’s mistake was that she misjudged the extent of Americans’ fears over Ebola.
“You have to know the landscape in which a crisis or problem is operating,” Smith said. She emphasized that words matter—especially on social media—and that perception leads while facts, unfortunately, trail behind.
Snyderman said she still has a hard time reliving her experience. “The social media spun out of control so fast, and I felt so vulnerable,” she said. “I was having trouble putting one foot in front of other. There’s real PTSD that comes with something like this. All of a sudden, I was public enemy No. 1, and people wanted me dead.”
Wynn Resorts (WYNN) co-founder Elaine Wynn also knows what it’s like to get caught in the public eye: She took on a public corporate battle with her ex-husband in an effort to keep her board seat at the hotel and casino operator. In the end, Wynn lost the seat, but she was happy with how she handled it.
“It was a fearful experience to go visit investors in Boston and San Francisco and tell my story publicly,” Wynn said. “But I could always go home and look myself in the mirror and know I did the right thing. It was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life, but I was prepared to see it through, and I would do it again today.”
The American public is largely forgiving, Smith said, and she shared some tips for executives who want to remedy an ugly situation and make a sincere apology.
“I tell the client—write down what you would say,” she said. “You don’t need 15 people involved in writing one apology. One meaningful apology that clearly states what you’re apologizing for is enough. The best you can do is to explain what you’re going to do to ensure it never happens again.”