By Ned Barnett, APR, AHA PR Fellow
Note: This column was developed for IABC and was published initially on their member-column website.
Self-induced celebrity PR meltdowns are not a purely American phenomenon (Prince William is having some serious media problems at the moment, too), but it may be particularly American that its media celebrities are ignoring sound PR response techniques. They are clearly not learning from their predecessors.
Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and shock-jock radio host Don Imus have all undergone very public meltdowns – disasters that have some remarkable similarities. In each case, their self-inflicted problems could have been largely overcome by a savvy and consistent PR response to their crises.
Gibson, Richards and Imus have shared two major mistakes: They ignored sound PR strategy in favor of seat-of-the-pants unscripted responses to their evolving crises. As a result, they each wound up engaging in seemingly-endless and very public rounds of “serial public apologies.” These compounded their initial PR problems by sustaining the story. They each gave the media additional fuel – fuel enough, in Imus’ case, to destroy his job, and perhaps his career.
For those not familiar with American radio, morning “drive-time” is the highest-rated and most profitable day-part. Competition for audiences is fierce, and “shock-jocks” are encouraged to push the envelope in order to drive ratings, ad revenues and profitability. Some who fell before Imus pushed way too far. One pair of shock-jocks in New York City encouraged listeners to have on-the-air sexual relations within the confines of St. Patrick’s Cathedral – and they lost their jobs when those listeners got caught “in flagrante delicto.” Oops.
Don Imus could be crude, but he wasn’t that crass. His show combined envelope-pushing comments with incisive and often newsworthy interviews with leading US politicians and major-league news media superstars. But in early April, Imus went a giant step too far. Instead of focusing his satiric boorishness on politicians or public figures, he used racial- and gender-offensive terms to mock a team of predominantly black college women athletes whose only sin was not looking as good as the predominantly white college women who beat them out for their sport’s national championship.
After more than a week of flopping about like a beached whale instead of responding to the crisis in a PR-savvy manner, Imus was fired for his comments.
Imus’ termination by the “suits” at CBS is a cautionary to those who assume that stand-out financial success was “proof” against unemployment. Imus had long been the $15-million-per-year cash cow at CBS Radio’s talk enterprise – but when his inept PR response to the crisis he crated didn’t work, the suits panicked and the rest is history.
Those are the facts – his botched response, perhaps even more than the initial crude comment itself, cost Imus his job, perhaps his career, as well as his chance to raise funds for a children’s charity he solely supported.
The week between his comment and his termination was punctuated by a blundering exercise in serial public apologies to people other than those he’d offended, along with lame and fungible excuses, half-baked public rationalizations and pathetic public attempts to shift blame to rap musicians – or, it seemed, almost anybody else. At one point, the often-cocky Imus bragged – bragged – that he didn’t have PR counsel advising him. Based on the results of his home-grown PR “solution,” it appears that all of his wounds were self-inflicted.
Some PR pros contend – and frankly, we’ll never know for sure – that Imus’ ‘original sin’ was so egregious that no PR solution could have salvaged his career.
However, at the time, and again in retrospect, I am convinced that if Don Imus had retained – and actually listened to – a seasoned and media-wise PR counselor, he might have survived. By either properly apologizing or hanging tough, he could have salvaged his career by turning down the volume on the public criticism that ultimately drove him from the marketplace of ideas.
Both of these solutions are based on Barnett’s First Law of Solving Self-Inflicted PR Problems: If running your mouth gets you into trouble, you can’t solve your problem by continuing to run your mouth. More colloquially, if you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot, take it out of your mouth first.
In short – shut up!
This “be-quiet and move-on” rule applies not just to celebrities trying to recover from self-inflicted wounds, but also to corporate CEOs and others whose ego gets ahead of their ability.
How might this have worked for Imus?
First, he should have seen what was really going to happen if he didn’t stop the damage right away (any PR pro would have seen that in about 18 nanoseconds), come up with a plan that made PR sense, then stick to that plan.
Although some PR pros saw no way out for Imus, I see one possible PR solution – possible, but only if acted on within the first 24 to 48 hours.
Solution: Imus should have, immediately on realizing what he’d done, chartered a jet, do what it takes to get in front of the Rutgers women’s basketball team’s members and, in private – face-to-face – offered a sincere apology to the women he offended.
In today’s environment, a “make-good” would have also been appropriate – perhaps endowing scholarships for Rutgers women’s basketball team members, or endowing a seat of racial sensitivity on the faculty. Such things are now expected in order to “prove” sincerity. However, the important point is simple; Imus should have apologized to the women he offended, not to Al Sharpton or Katie Couric or Larry King. He should then have buttoned up and hunkered down to ride out the storm.
Whenever he was asked by the media for a further comment, he should have repeated his apology, verbatim – endlessly verbatim – and said nothing else. News stories can’t move forward in a vacuum, and eventually the media would have moved on.
If Imus had gotten out front of the news cycle – if he’d taken bold and decisive action to admit guilt and make amends – and if he’d stuck to his story and avoided the temptations of talking about this issue, on his own program or on other radio/TV programs, the story would have eventually had to die from a lack of sustainability.
However, instead of taking his lumps, hunkering down, then (eventually) moving on, Imus apologized – endlessly. And not to the women he’d wronged, but to Al Sharpton and a seemingly-endless series of fellow news media stars, all of whom had professional (and in some cases, financial) incentives to keep moving the story forward. Imus should have known better – as a talk show host himself, he’d been on the receiving end of more than a few “serial public apologies.” Even without the recent examples of Mel Gibson and Michael Richards, Imus had every reason to know nothing good comes from offering seemingly endless, insincere and conflicting or defensive apologies.
He had no PR counsel, so he fell back on what he knew best, and in doing so, he fell into the standard-issue media trap. He’d crossed the ill-defined line of what the media will accept, and that made him fair game. Imus apologized to people who had professional reasons for hanging him out to dry while he turned slowly, slowly in the wind … and his critics’ ratings soared. Once he adopted this public apology approach, there was no sound PR way out. But prompt and savvy PR action “might” have turned things around for him. At least, if he’d followed a sound PR strategy, he would have had a chance.
About the author: Ned Barnett has been working in PR for 35 years; about half on the client-side and half on the agency side. From an agency perspective, he’s been a senior exec at a Fleishman-Hillard subsidiary and he’s been (and is currently) a solo practitioner – operating Barnett Marketing Communications in Las Vegas and Southern Utah (http://www.barnettmarcom.com). He was, in 1978, the youngest person (to that time) to earn APR status with PRSA, and in ‘84 he became the first person to earn Fellowship Status in PR from the American Hospital Association. He’s written 9 published books on PR and is working on his tenth; he’s taught PR at two state universities – from an honors perspective, his accomplishments range from earning the 1974 Chattanooga Association of Business Communicators “Writer of the Year” to PRSA’s 2001 Silver Anvil.