12/31/21 – – With three miraculous vaccines approved to tame the pandemic and an economic recovery well underway, 2021 was supposed to usher in a period of calm and healing in America. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. As the year comes to an end, we’re still wearing face masks, college football bowl games are being cancelled, and the terms “variant,” “inflation” and “resignation” dominate our conversations.
Looking back over the last tumultuous 12 months from the perspective of a crisis counselor, the environment for business leaders, celebrities and corporations was no less turbulent. So, before we join in a chorus of Auld Lang Syne, let’s revisit some of the subjects tackled in this blog and review five lessons we learned.
The Past is Fertile Ground for Crises
Much like Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” many characters featured in my blog posts during the year were visited by their own Ghosts of Christmas Past. We were reminded throughout 2021 that the indelibility of email and other digital communication platforms makes it much harder for modern-day Scrooges to escape retribution for past indiscretions.
Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden lost his job and his reputation after The New York Times published ugly emails he sent to fellow National Football League executives as long ago as 2011. Also receiving pink slips were the brothers Cuomo — Andrew and Chris — after numerous victims of their past alleged sexual harassment came forward. Mike Richards, after just nine days as the replacement for Alex Trebek on “Jeopardy!” saw his career collapse under charges of unacceptable workplace behavior. And as the year came to a close, “Sex and the City” actor Chris Noth, praised for his role in a viral Peloton crisis-response video, could not peddle away from shame and unemployment when his higher profile triggered several women to go public with claims of harassment and rape.
Second Acts Require Sacrifice
Many famous individuals mired in reputational purgatory sought forgiveness in 2021; some more successfully than others.
Comedian Louis C.K. launched a multi-city comeback tour after keeping a low profile for four years after being shamed for masturbating in front of female comedians. Judging from ticket sales, his fans welcomed the return of his raw, irreverent humor. Also getting his gig back was CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. He was reinstated by the network eight months after exposing himself on a Zoom call with colleagues at The New Yorker magazine. Less fortunate was TV news anchor Brian Williams, who in November signed off after 28 years at NBC, five years after being demoted to MSNBC for embellishing stories of his past reporting. He has not revealed any future plans to win back his lost standing as one of America’s most popular, trusted journalists.
Time is an important element in recovering from crisis. Just how much time outside the spotlight the public requires of a fallen celebrity, politician or company depends on the nature of the offense, the pre-crisis reputation of the offender and the adequacy of the offender’s response. Given the increasingly unforgiving nature of “cancel culture,” absolution was hard to come by in 2021.
Controversial Events Can Ensnare Innocent Brands
During the year, some great brands were buffeted by what I call “crises by association.” In these situations, companies are drawn into controversy — most often political controversy — by no fault of their own.
Olive Garden found itself at the center of the January 6 riot in Washington when CNN’s Anderson Cooper suggested that the popular Italian restaurant chain was the preferred dining choice for members of the mob. Rittenhouse Whiskey stepped into a contentious political debate when the distillers protested the use of its spirit by people celebrating the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, who was facing murder charges in connection with civil disruption in Kenosha, Wisconsin. And NASCAR driver Brandon Brown became the accidental inspiration for the coded anti-Biden slur “Let’s Go Brandon.”
Navigating crises by association is difficult, requiring custom strategies to meet each challenge. Olive Garden wisely remained silent and let its fans brag online about the delicious bread sticks served in its restaurants. Rittenhouse Whiskey took sides, chastising and angering its customers. And Brandon Brown, after laying low for weeks, took charge of his narrative by agreeing to a New York Times interview and authoring a Newsweek guest editorial pledging to remain engaged in important issues, but stay out of politics.
Smile for the Camera
George Orwell’s “Big Brother” may not have been watching us in 2021, but citizens armed with high-definition smart phone cameras were.
Former Jacksonville Jaguar head coach Urban Meyer, who was fired earlier this month, faced a reputational storm when a video went viral earlier this season of a young woman — not his wife — provocatively dancing close to him as he sat at a bar. The resulting erosion of trust made it impossible for the Jaguars front office to stick with Meyer as his football team lost game after game. And United Airlines, purveyors of what used to be “friendly skies,” had to remind its flight attendants not to duct tape unruly passengers to their seats after videos viewed by millions online revealed multiple air carriers employing this questionable customer service practice.
The lesson is clear: Assume that you are always on camera and behave accordingly. Smart phones with amazing audio and video capabilities requiring no operator competence are ubiquitous. And online platforms are available to instantly share your involuntary screen test with audiences around the world. I’m dating myself, but Alan Funt, creator of the TV program “Candid Camera,” must be rolling over in his grave.
The Importance of Resilience, Adaptability and Purpose
And finally, the lesson we’ve all learned over the last 12 COVID-challenged months is that surviving a crisis requires the resilience to keep going even when there’s little good news or progress, the adaptability to find innovative solutions and embrace new technology, and the clarity of purpose to stay focused on what’s important and where you want to go. Individuals, companies and organizations endowed with these capabilities survived 2021 and will thrive in 2022.
Thanks for reading my stuff and Happy New Year!