Catching Up on the Crises Facing Ellen, Robert and Ben

We Revisit the Reputational Challenges Facing Ellen DeGeneres, Robert Kraft, and the Brand Formerly Known as Uncle Ben’s       

9/25/2020 – – Serious reputational challenges that rise to the level of a “crisis” are rarely resolved overnight. Companies and individuals finding themselves in the eye of such storms, which often rage for months or years, suffer ups and downs as they fight to clear the clouds. This week we learned of progress on the road to redemption by Ellen DeGeneres, Robert Kraft and the marketers of Uncle Ben’s rice.

Ellen’s Disappointing Apology 2.0

Ahead of the season debut of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Ellen DeGeneres released a video of her opening monologue, an on-air apology to her audience and staff. This was the first we heard from Ellen since she issued a written statement this summer in response to allegations — confirmed by a Warner Bros. investigation — of “racism, fear and intimidation” on the set of her program.   

Since I blogged in August about this challenge to Ellen’s super-nice persona, three of her senior producers have been fired and it was announced that all staff members, including Ellen, will participate in diversity and inclusion workshops. While these are meaningful reforms, betrayed fans and mistreated staff members were anxious to hear Ellen’s explanation, right from the comedian’s mouth.

Unfortunately, Ellen’s performance failed to quiet the storm. Staying in character, she injected humor into her mea culpa. That left staff members with the feeling that she still didn’t understand the toxicity of their work environment. One employee told BuzzFeed: “Not only did Ellen turn my trauma, turn our traumas, into a joke, she somehow managed to make this about her.”

There is an important lesson here for communicators: Humor, as appealing as it may be to public speakers, is difficult to pull off, especially when responding to a crisis. If Ellen DeGeneres can’t make it work, chances are good that executives trying to be funny under fire will really screw things up.

Prosecutors Punt on Robert Kraft Charges

Looks like New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, charged last year in Palm Beach County with two counts of soliciting prostitution in a strip mall massage parlor, is a free man. This week prosecutors dropped all charges against the billionaire, left with no evidence to use at trial when Kraft’s lawyers successfully argued that explicit hidden-camera video of the alleged encounter (Kraft’s attorneys described it as “pornography”) violated their client’s right to privacy.

Mr. Kraft may be out of the woods on the legal front, but his reputation is far from repaired. The National Football League, quick to take action when football players misbehave off the field, must now decide what to do with one of its owners. Commissioner Roger Goodell is not a judge. He operates with a far lower burden of proof and has more latitude in assigning punishment. Unlike the video recorded at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa, the initial apology/confession issued by Kraft last March will be reviewed by Goodell and the public:

“I am truly sorry. I know I have hurt and disappointed my family, my close friends, my co-workers, our fans and many others who rightfully hold me to a higher standard . . . I expect to be judged not by my words, but by my actions. And through those actions, I hope to regain your confidence and respect.”

The ball is in Roger Goodell’s hands. In the meantime, there is another important lesson here for crisis counselors: Hire great attorneys! They may not be able to wipe away the embarrassment, but they can keep you out of jail.

Bye Bye Uncle Ben’s

Making good on the promise to “evolve” the Uncle Ben’s brand, Mars, Inc. announced this week that consumers will soon find the company’s rice products in packages labeled as “Ben’s Original.” No decision yet about how the offending image of Uncle Ben — perceived as racial stereotyping — will be replaced.

Fiona Dawson, global president for Mars Food, explained: “We listened to our associates and our customers and the time is right to make meaningful changes across society. When you are making these changes, you are not going to please everyone. But it’s about doing the right thing, not the easy thing.”

Going beyond the name change to demonstrate the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, Mars set a goal of filling 40 percent of its management positions with racial minorities. The company will also provide $2 million in culinary scholarships for aspiring chefs of color through the National Urban League and invest $2.5 million in nutritional and education programs for public school students in Greenville, Mississippi, where the rice brand is produced. The majority population of Greenville is African American.

The important lesson here: Consumers are far more likely to accept the sincerity of marketing changes when companies demonstrate a sincere commitment to real organizational change.

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