Disney Made Quick Work of ‘Roseanne.’ It’s Not Always So Easy.
Posted May 30, 2018 8:41 p.m. EDT
The toppling of Roseanne Barr — from her racist late-night tweet to the early-morning backlash and ABC’s axing of her highly rated show — took less than 12 hours.
That is the equivalent of hyperspeed for businesses and brands that are accustomed to taking their time when it comes to high-stakes decisions about key employees who land in hot water.
But the intensity and immediacy of the social media age has turned corporate crisis management into an exercise where minutes, and sometimes seconds, count. And the praise that ABC executives received this week for their swift response will most likely serve as an example to other businesses facing public relations disasters.
“It’s the concept of the golden hour of crisis response,” said Kara Alaimo, who teaches public relations and reputation management at Hofstra University. “It’s a term borrowed from emergency medicine: Everyone knows if you get a heart attack victim to the hospital in the first hour, they’re more likely to survive.”
Alaimo added: “If you respond quickly, you get to frame the narrative, rather than allowing other people to frame your actions and motivations for you. That is the key to surviving a crisis on social media.”
Still, every public-relations fiasco is unique, a circumstantial stew of cultural context, financial consequence and the particular flavor of the offense. In some ways, experts said, ABC and its corporate parent, The Walt Disney Co., benefited from the sheer outrageousness of Barr’s remark, which depicted Valerie Jarrett, an African-American woman and one of President Barack Obama’s closest advisers, as the product of “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes.”
“It was a fait accompli that advertisers were going to abandon the show,” said Stu Loeser, a communications consultant for Fortune 500 companies who was the press secretary for former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. For ABC and Disney, Loeser said, the choice was simple: “Do we do the right thing now, or do we do the right thing when we’re left with no other choice?”
But companies must sometimes face murkier scenarios while still experiencing the same pressures of a fast-moving Twitter conversation that can quickly coalesce into boycotts and protests.
Last September, ABC’s corporate cousin, ESPN, came under intense pressure after the “SportsCenter” host Jemele Hill, who is African-American, called President Donald Trump a white supremacist. “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists,” Hill wrote on Twitter.
Trump allies, including the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, called for Hill to be disciplined or fired. At first, ESPN said that Hill had merely violated its social media guidelines and described her opinions as her own. Then, after Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he would bench players who “disrespect the flag” at games, Hill suggested a boycott of the team’s advertisers. ESPN suspended her.
Hill had ventured into highly emotional issues of politics and race, and from the network’s perspective, some viewers who disagreed with her opinions might have felt alienated. But a harsher punishment for Hill could have sparked its own backlash from a different portion of its audience. Hill has since moved from “SportsCenter” to The Undefeated, an ESPN website focused on sports and race.
“It isn’t a bright line and it isn’t a science,” Loeser said of the way companies weigh their handling of an employee who has stirred public controversy.
“Any company has multiple key audiences: clients, advertisers, customers, employees and regulators,” he said. “Not every case is as clear as ‘Roseanne,’ and you’re often going to leave yourself with one or another segment of your audience angry.” Trump wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that Disney executives had let slide “HORRIBLE statements made and said about me on ABC.” Sanders, in her press briefing, cited Hill and remarks made by host Joy Behar and comedian Kathy Griffin on “The View” as examples of incendiary comments or behavior that did not lead to a similar outcome.
Griffin, who had posed for a photo holding what appeared to be the president’s decapitated head, took back her apology to the president in an appearance on “The View” — but by then she had been fired from her New Year’s Eve hosting gig on CNN. Behar, who had mocked the religious faith of Vice President Mike Pence on the air, apologized for her remarks, and Pence later said that he had forgiven her.
Unlike Barr, none of those broadcasters made a racist remark of the kind that have caused employers to cut ties.
Radio host Don Imus, in 2007, lost his national radio and television shows about a week after he referred to members of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” As with Barr’s tweet, the blatant racism of Imus’ remarks drew an intense backlash from a wide audience. But he was hired by New York radio station WABC after eight months off the air.
In 1988, sports commentator Jimmy Snyder, known as Jimmy the Greek, was fired by CBS Sports a day after the airing of an interview in which he suggested that African-American athletes were physically superior because of breeding during the era of slavery.
Companies crafting a response to a crisis “should think about what a reasonable person would reasonably expect an organization to do, under such circumstances,” Alaimo said.
In Barr’s case, she said, “I think that reasonable Americans don’t believe that it’s appropriate to say the things that Roseanne said. When you think about how to respond to a crisis in those terms, I actually think that the answer becomes rather obvious to companies.”
She added: “I’m astonished by the companies that don’t seem to apply it.”