What the Ellen scandal can teach us about dealing with your brand in a crisis
Like many millions around the world, I am a fan of Ellen. I love her show, her dancing, I appreciated how clever her humour was – it was pointed without being offensive. This is no easy task.
She risked her professional career for being honest about who she was - and lost it. Then she came back again - more powerful than ever.
If I had to describe her in a word before this year, it would have been: untouchable.
And yet – the past 12 months have seen her show, her brand, and her personally be a target of some unkind, unflattering and frankly shocking stories.
First a rumour, then a ‘meanest celebrity ever’ twitter feed, an awkward interview about a birthday invite, then bullying allegations followed by some celebrities backing up that in fact the behaviour Ellen has been accused of, is true and common knowledge within the TV industry.
When someone has built their brand on helping people and kindness and has done amazing things for society, I don’t take it lightly when they are accused of not-nice things.
In fact, I’m the first person to say “Of course people will always want to knock you down when you are on top.”
But then, there’s a wisdom that would suggest when there’s a lot of smoke, go look for fire.
Don’t assume that building – or person - is in fact, untouchable. No one is.
Working in PR and TV for 15 years, a lot of my job was reputation management. Dealing with crises and bullying was unfortunately a common theme that showed up.
I also saw toxic cultures (particularly working in TV) that were allowed to continue because the people on top seemed untouchable.
Until, inevitably, the truth came out.
Sometimes, this was a totally fabricated and crazy person who was gunning for a pay-out or revenge, and the person accused was in fact, being victimised.
It happened, but this was a rare instance.
When trying to discover the ‘truth’ behind these stories, there always seemed to be something that needed to be accounted for, explained, and there was always more then one story or person that came forward.
Simply put – there was almost always something going on that shouldn’t have been.
And more often than not, certain behaviours were ‘ common knowledge’. But that’s how the power structure works, as the recent #metoo campaign has showed all too well.
Here’s the thing – if you have a business, a brand, an online business, a social media following – the larger you grow, the more voices will have a say in what you do and how you do it.
There will be a crisis.
This could be in the form of a bullying complaint, some unhappy customers, footage showing up that shows you in an unflattering light,a leaked email, tax issues, a cheating scandal, you call out the wrong name of the winner of the Miss America pageant on live TV – the list goes on.
The point is, a crisis is nearly unavoidable. And no one – no brand, no personality, no business, is untouchable.
How you DEAL with the crisis – will either save your brand or help destroy it.
Firstly, you need to be the first person to respond - quickly.
I learned to be honest, and be first, in every situation.
Here’s what I would be advising Ellen or any business owner in a similar situation:
1. Show up to staff. If you take it seriously, show up as the leader of your show and brand and tell them how seriously you take this issue. Even if you don’t have all the information yet. Show up as the values you talk about in your induction, in your handbook. Offer your time, have a plan, a process for how to help support people (bring in counsellors and a support team), show up as the leader you would want in a crisis, don’t make someone else do it for you (especially when it’s your name on the door). Real leadership shows in in time of crisis.
2. Do everything you can to find out the truth. Quickly. Ask the right questions. Get an independent party to come in and do their process, and be open to what comes out and willing to make tough decisions. Nothing else trumps getting to the bottom of this issue, and you need to willing to do whatever is required to make sure the right thing happens here. Leave your ego at the door and let the process unfold. Participate. When it comes to media - leave it to the experts. I would be working on getting a statement out to media as quickly as I could, even if it's just to acknowledge we are aware of the issue and what we are doing about it. Trust their advice and keep to the strategy, don't go all rambo and post random, mysterious tweets that make you look like you are having a Kanye moment. It will make you look unstable and untrustworthy.
3. Show up to your stakeholders – The people who have supported you should always hear from you first in a crisis. There is nothing worse then having a fire raging and someone on the platform in front saying ‘it’s under control’. For Ellen, I would say: post a video. Show us that ‘kindness and authenticity’ you have spoken about for the past 20 years (and tell your publicist before you do it, darn it). Now isn’t the time to hide behind a statement curated by executives and legal teams. You have built a brand off being real with people, don’t hide now when unflattering comments are being made. It’s ugly, it’s soul-destroying for some people, but we actually want to see you right now. When you get others to do your talking, it makes people question if you are hiding anything. Of course, you need to consult your media peeps, your team, your network execs, but you need to show up.
4. Say sorry. In my upcoming book 'Grit, Grace and Hustle’ I talk about eating humble pie, especially when working in a fast-paced environment like TV where everyone is on edge anyway. Let’s face it, most of us hate being wrong and I particularly hate apologising. But when someone has been wronged, even by accident, if someone in my team has been mistreated and not protected, that’s on me. And no one is perfect. I would apologise for any instance, any one-time that I may have not have showed up with the values I believe in. This happens. You are human. And people, your fans and your staff will be much more responsive for you apologising for the times you fell short. When you apologise, with sincerity, it can make your brand stronger. It puts you in a position of power and grace.
5. Own it. David Letterman famously on-air admitted he had an affair and was being blackmailed by a former staff member. He totally owned it, apologised to his family, his staff and after that, there was nothing anyone could say about his story. He owned it, controlled the narrative and spoke his truth. If you are 100% certain these things spoken against you are totally wrong, then say it. Say who you are, what is actually going, and what you are going to do about it. But you better be ready for someone to post a video of you losing it with the coffee lady that one day (that’s my biggest fear by the way. I like to believe I am a nice person but darn it, I have had my moments). Even if only 10% of what is said about you is true, own that part. Be honest first and be first to share it.
Being right does not mean being perfect. People want to know what you have been ‘selling them’ isn’t just a façade.
Grace is given when truth and authenticity are offered. Offer it.
If I was sitting in front of Ellen right now, as a former TV publicist, PR expert and show fan, I would say this:
"For 20 years, you have built a reputation for kindness and authenticity – not perfection. Own what needs to change, and allow grace to be offered.
People will surprise you when you don’t try and hide the ugly parts (we all have them). People are waiting for you to do the right thing, so do it quickly.
We have lost enough in COVID this year, so please don’t let this be the end of our relationship with you and all the awesome things you have done for media, for people and for humanity.
That’s the kindest act you can do right now, for everyone, including yourself."
Rachel Reva is a PR consultant, a copywriter and success coach.
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Rachel Reva is a PR consultant, copy writer and success coach.