by Hank Boerner
In my career of advising clients on issue management and crisis management (and especially crisis response), I usually pointed out to those in the crosshairs that it is not just “one thing” to deal with. Often, in time of an escalation of existing issues, a critical event occurring, or a full blown crisis at hand, the managers on point have to deal with numerous things going on.
Chaos, confusion, complexity reign. Things feel, well, like they are spinning out of control. Often, they are!
Over the years I estimate that I’ve been involved in more than 400 critical issues and crisis situations — in various industries and sectors (auto manufacturing, banking and financial services, airlines, cruise ships, railroads, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, educational institutions, government, countries, mining, food marketing, consumer goods, oil & gas, mutual funds, stock exchanges…and more. Some of my work involves helping individuals cope with crisis eruptions. Those are vary tough assignments – emotional damage is difficult to deal with.
In my issue and crisis preparation training for managers, I stress the key, top line actions for effective response by the enterprise:
- Know in advance what might go wrong (the potential risk posed to the enterprise or perhaps a leader such as the CEO), and monitor and evaluate those issues regularly. What “is” (facts) will surface one way or another – perhaps by a whistleblower. “Nothing is secret anymore” is my advice.
- Develop a plan for responding to critical events; assign roles to responders and prepare them (such as with formal training).
- Build prevention programs. Practice – drill – stress internal preparedness.
- Establish communication channels and have content ready “in case.”
- Respond quickly – work to reduce fear; maintain credibility; create positive perceptions where you can.
- Work hard to control the incident, the crisis. Stress solutions. Demonstrate your values.
- Communicate – tell your story — if not, others will fill the vacuum and their story…and yours…and set the context in which the story [of the crisis] will be told and retold in the future.
In the context of corporate crises situations, these guidelines have pretty much become SOPs. With my partners, over 25 years we helped many companies in the US and other countries put issue and crisis management programs in place. There are other consulting practices doing the same. Yes, crisis situations still occur (cases in point including General Motors, BP, Target, the Obamacare launch) but many enterprises really are better prepared to respond that in years past.
But What About Individuals in Crisis?
For individuals involved in crisis situations — especially high wattage celebrities with brand and reputation (and future earnings) on the line — the man or woman in the crosshairs will often find themselves in uncharted territory.
As the ancient mapmakers would put on their charts of the distant oceans — here be dragons!
Right now, comedian Bill Cosby — “America’s Dad” as his brand — is dealing (or, not dealing) with a serious crisis continuing to spin out of control.
Comedian extraordinaire Bill Cosby has not been in hiding. At 77 years of age, he is still very much in the game. He’s been doing his one man shows across the country, 50 a year it’s reported (My wife and I saw his show a few years ago — outstanding!) His books sit ready for purchase in many book stores and retail outlets. His TV series continues to air in syndication.
But recently a series of business decisions put him out front in media reports (of a favorable type) and stirred up allegations of sexual misconduct of years standing. Consider:
- He was in discussions with NBC to create a new weekly TV series.
- Netflix, the popular technology and entertainment threat to cable and broadcast dominance, had a special scheduled (“Bill Cosby 77,” featuring the comedian as MC at the SF Jazz Center last July).
- His old 1980s family audience TV show was doing well in re-runs (more income generation) on TV Land…possible marketing leverage for a new weekly show on NBC.
- His books remain popular with readers and are featured in retail and on Amazon.
- A new biography — “Bill Cosby. His Life and Times” by former CNN news leader and former Newsweek managing editor Mark Whittaker was on the retail shelves. Praises for Cosby in the book were by other celebrities who enjoyed cultural admiration — Mary Tyler Moore, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld.
Things were really looking up for the star of I Spy and The Bill Cosby Show, two important cultural foundation stones of many Americans’ youth.
And then…in mid-October comedian Hannibal Buress in a stand-up routine accused Cosby of being a rapist and told the audience to “Google” the record on this; he then went on the Howard Stern program on Sirius XM to repeat his charges, and pushed his views out on Twitter; The Philadelphia Inquirer “old media” giant posted the routine and the social media platforms it up.
Author Whittaker’s biography was publicly attacked by the National Review as “fawning,” glossing over the many rumors over the years about Mr. Cosby’s misconduct, and tagged the author as the “latest enabler.” The article went viral in the nation’s politically conservative community.
Back in 2006, Philadelphia magazine published an article detailing the alleged attacks on more than a dozen women by the comedian. The Montgomery County (Pennsylvania) district attorney (Bruce Castor) investigated claims and declined prosecution; he now has to publicly defend his prior decision. A civil lawsuit proceeded with [there was said to be up] to 13 women that could be involved; that case was settled and sealed.
One of the women — Barbara Bowman — went public in November, publishing a commentary about her experience in The Washington Post. That got other traditional and new media lighting up with more “news” and lots of commentary.
Other women then stepped forward — a dozen or so — repeating their stories of years ago or going public with their stories for the first time.
And the Google searches suggested by comedian Burress? There were millions of searches, according to media reports..
Reaction was comparatively swift:
The NBC series – cancelled. The Netflix special – cancelled. The interview with David Letterman on CBS – cancelled. The new biography’s sales were reported to be slumping. TV Land re-runs – cancelled.
Author Whittaker’s new biography was attacked by the National Review as “fawning,” glossing over the many rumors over the years about misconduct, and tagged the author as the “latest enabler.” The conservative publication’s article went viral, especially within the nation’s politically conservative community.
All of sudden another “old” scandal was back in focus for the right wing: former President Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual escapades — sure to haunt Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential race, the post writers opined. (We’ll see Paula and Monica and the other “Bill Clinton women” on parade over the coming years, they predicted.)
The Cosby camp did respond on social media — a Twitter post encouraged the Twitter-ali to go to a web page and post comments. They did! Oh, not the comments that supporters would welcome, of course.
The New York Times published an in-depth story on all of this on November 20 — “Cosby Comeback Unravels as Rape Claims Flare.” The Times noted the long tail of the controversy: “The current furor surfaced surrounding Mr. Cosby had its root in accusations brought in 2005 by Andrea Constand, a female staff member with the basket ball team at Temple University (Cosby alma mater).” Despite DA Castor’s declining to prosecute, she brought a lawsuit that would possibly involve up to13 other “Jane Does.” That was the was the civil case settled. The “Jane Does” we can presume are those coming forward – and those planning to do so in the future.
Context is important in these matters. And as I compose this, the news headlines scream out another complicating factor that is shaping in various ways public opinion: “University of Virginia Suspends All Fraternities” – this after the still-remarkably relevant Rolling Stone magazine published a report that a female student was sexually assaulted by seven Phil Kappa Psi members in 2012. The university president — a woman, by the way, Teresa Sullivan — called on her board, students, faculty, alumni…to begin a conversation on all of this.
That can be alongside the conversation about allegations or the reality of wife and child abuse by National Football League players…these have been glossed over, ignored, diminished…until there was sufficient public outrage and an apology by NFL leader Roger Goodell. The viral video of Ravens player Ray Rice shown beating his fiancé/now wife in a casino triggered the crisis, which had been brewing for years if you think about it as anti-domestic violence advocates do.
Consider the Bold Names – Collateral Damage
Take a few seconds to read upward — note all the BOLD names in the commentary. Think about the rippling effects of the Bill Cosby crises. The NFL crisis. The crisis today at the University of Virginia — and other universities where similar incidents have been charged by female students. .The corporations involved with brands and revenues on the line now. The other celebrities praising Mr. Cosby.
The Role of Social Media and the Internet
Back to the Cosby case: why are decades-old, or at least five or more years old cases being brought front and center today? I think a profound difference is the omnipresence today of social media. Citizen media. Everyman (and woman) media. The challenge of old media (The Washington Post, The New York Times) by new platforms like Huffington Post, even Twitter (as news source for millions of user, specially younger populations)..
We still have venerable TV national news forums like those in the evening on CBS, NBC, ABC. (With great anchors — Scott Pelley, Brian Williams David Muir). But since the 1980s we have 24/7 CNN as well…and many young people get their news from other “anchors” like Bill Maher (HBO) and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert (Comedy Central). And I would throw in Saturday Night Live! parodies on NBC. On these new news platforms, humor and satire are the staples and celebrities in crisis should expect to be skewered.
But citizen media (social media) is really now the key to setting the match to a smoldering situation. That applies to be companies like BP and celebrities like BC. As The Times’ Bill Carter, Graham Bowley and Lorne Manley noted in their November 20th Page One story: “The reach of web and social media impact have provided a distribution platform for these accusations, which had surfaced before but never gained widespread attention.”
And Martin Kaplan of the University of California’s journalism school noted: “The combination of [today’s] social media and Mr. Cosby’s return to the spotlight had propelled the story to much greater prominence that when the accusation first surfaced.”
As I said up top…Chaos, confusion, complexity reign. UC’s Professor Kaplan explained: “The fact that he was already in the spotlight and the fact that these charges have a much more powerful amplifier and echo chamber, gives people the sense that this is a big story…”
Going back to the basic principles for crisis management — if in fact the allegations of the women accusing Mr. Cosby of serious sexual misconduct have a factual basis, as a celebrity (and therefore a “public person”) it might have been better to continue one’s career in lower profile. In crisis management, over and over again, the lesson for leaders is clear:”what is, is” – and will come out at some time.
What are your thoughts on all this? What are the lessons learned?