In the Suburbs / A crisis-management nightmare
Published 6:40 am, Thursday, March 8, 2012
As an experienced crisis communications professional, I was shocked and mortified by Rush Limbaugh's blatant verbal attack on a young woman last week. "If he were my client," I thought, "how would I pick up the pieces, and worse yet, how would I contain the crisis?"
As for picking up the pieces, my answer was "very carefully." But on containing the crisis I concluded there was little I could do in a social media world where the remark was "so 20 seconds ago!"
As a popular radio talk-show personality with sponsors whose product sales depend to a large extent on Mr. Limbaugh's listeners, he stepped too far over the line. And he apologized way too late.
I've learned with most crises I've handled that there are three questions that have to be asked:
How did it happen?
What are we going to do about it?
In in a viral world, most folks won't get past the first or maybe the second question.
Within a day, Limbaugh's listeners sent their message loud and clear to his sponsors, and many of those advertisers have already pulled out of the show. There also have been movements in several cities to drop the syndicated show.
But the most uncontrollable part of Limbaugh's crisis has been the political damage it is causing in the middle of primary season. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall at polling places on Super Tuesday.
I have to believe that by now Limbaugh's network has brought in a crisis expert to begin whatever damage control can be implemented. I'm sure that's where his apology came from, even though it was late. Now I'm waiting for the next step in the strategy, which could very well be Limbaugh's resignation.
Listeners don't forget. They certainly didn't when radio talk-show host Don Imus made an inappropriate remark about the Rutgers University women's basketball team a few years ago. In a similar fashion to Limbaugh, Imus tried to dismiss the remark off handedly. That didn't work either.
Imus underestimated the outrage of the team's fans, its coach and his own listeners, who felt the remark was out-of-line and inexcusable. After a lot of public humiliation and his ultimate firing, Imus' willingness to visit the team to personally apologize and to hear their anger and frustration allowed him to make a comeback on another network.
Over the years, several clients I've represented in crisis management have tried to downplay the initial impact of the crisis, only to call me at all hours to finally ask, "All right, what can we do to make this go away?"
Only those who were willing to own up to what happened and how it happened were able to tell their clients and constituents that they had a solution. Those who tried to bypass the first questions had a lot more work to do. Nobody wins in a crisis.
I still believe the most brilliantly handled crisis was the Johnson & Johnson Tylenol tampering debacle in 1982, when cynanide poisoning killed seven people in Chicago. The CEO himself went on as many national television shows as his publicists could secure, apologized and recalled the product at a multi-million dollar loss.
The company issued public warnings, and when products were returned to the shelves, the company had created a triple security packaging.
Despite the example set by Johnson & Johnson, countless other organizations have faced crises and failed to convince stockholders and customers that they recognized what happened and how it happened so they could do something about the crisis. But in most cases, the person or persons at the top who tried to defend their roles ultimately had to take responsibility and move aside or resign in disgrace.
My opinion on the Limbaugh situation is that in very short order we're going to see some kind of resolution. Unless the network that syndicates this radio talk show host is ready to hear endlessly from shareholders, listeners and sponsors, I think Limbaugh will either resign with a sizeable severance package or be replaced with a strong-willed host whose boundaries are clearly defined.
I'm not sure I'd want to be part of the crisis team on this case, because there is little or nothing positive that can emerge. If there was any doubt that Mr. Limbaugh's remarks were made maliciously, the team could craft a strategy. But while the host may say he was not acting maliciously, listeners would argue otherwise.
And when the listeners' level of toleration erodes, there should be no place for the talk show host to go but out.
But stay tuned. Clearly there are no decisions yet.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.