A PR View Of Ellen’s Apology

It’s not the biggest story in the country today, but it’s instructive for PR and crisis management experts. This week Ellen DeGeneres issued her first on-air apology after reports of her show’s “toxic workplace.” For those who are tapped to help craft redemptive messages for personalities and corporations, a public apology is always useful, and this one was no exception.

Toxic workplace threatens “Ellen” brand

The on-air apology wasn’t the first response to the reports of “racism, intimidation, and fear” at “Ellen” broken by Buzzfeed in July. Early efforts to manage the story were clearly aimed at protecting DeGeneres. Three executive producers released a joint statement taking full responsibility for any problems and pledging to do better. WarnerMedia opened an investigation into the charges. Yet DeGeneres herself did not respond publicly. Two weeks later she wrote a letter to staff which was promptly leaked to the press, of course. In it she seemed to duck blame.

“As we’ve grown exponentially, I’ve not been able to stay on top of everything and relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I’d want them done,” DeGeneres wrote. “Clearly some didn’t. That will now change and I’m committed to ensuring this does not happen again.”

The letter was followed by accusations of sexual misconduct by top producers. After a second Ellen apology to staff during a tearful Zoom meeting, employees learned that three senior executives would be leaving the show. They were also promised better perks and benefits. WarnerMedia installed a dedicated HR executive at the show and a hotline to manage confidential concerns. So, in a PR sense, things were cleaned up. But Ellen had yet to face her viewing audience.

What makes an apology effective?

Monday brought a new season for “Ellen” and was thus her first opportunity to face fans on the air. DeGeneres addressed fans for nearly five minutes in a monologue made a bit surreal because audience members were visible on individual monitors scattered among the seats. She began the apology with a joke (“If you’re watching because you love me, thank you. If you’re watching because you don’t love me, welcome!”) She emphasized that necessary changes had been made and that the show was “starting a new chapter.” In a departure from earlier remarks, she made it clear that she was ultimately accountable.

“I know that I’m in a position of privilege and power. And I realized that with that comes responsibility, and I take responsibility for what happens at my show.”

The first rule of a good apology is to take responsibility for the situation. It should also focus on those who were harmed, not the one at fault. In her remarks, DeGeneres mostly accomplished both. She pointed out her name on the set and acknowledged that the buck stops with her.  She also spoke at length about those affected.

The last public apology rule is typically the promise of a fix. Here, DeGeneres was vague, but we can assume her fans (and employees, who are in the best position to judge) accept that positive changes have been made. If not, it will surely make news.

Authenticity will out

But the true goal here went beyond a strong mea culpa. DeGeneres had a more difficult objective, which was to regain the trust of fans. Amid the negative fallout over the summer there was a persistent theme – that contrary to appearances, DeGeneres just isn’t a nice person. The bad PR fed into long-swirling rumors that the woman whose brand is linked to her admonition to “Be Kind” is anything but that.

That’s why her monologue had to address the discrepancy. She assured her audience that, while she has bad moments and plenty of flaws, she is who she seems. She seemed to give her audience credit by saying she wasn’t a good enough actress to fake it every day for 17 years. They see her for who she is. It was well delivered and, for fans, reasonably authentic.

DeGeneres was strongest when she talked about what she wants her show to be – essentially “that one hour where people come here to escape and laugh” at a time when the news is often very grim. The remarks skated close to thin ice when she alluded to the many problems that beset us today, as if she wanted to place employee complaints in perspective by comparing the two, but she reined it in well.

Yet what could have been a near-flawless apology earned mixed reviews at best among Ellen-watchers. Most who objected were critical of her jokes, which they called tone-deaf. I’m not a regular “Ellen” viewer, but to my mind the opening quip was a legitimately witty icebreaker and set up the apology well. Yet after the opener, the constant reversion to humor undercut the sincerity of the message. Even when the jokes were self-deprecating, they were distracting and in some cases, not very funny.

In the final analysis, Ellen DeGeneres is a brand, and it’s her brand integrity that is at stake. Maybe the neurotic-seeming deflections into self-referential humor are just part of who she is. It may be what fans love about her, and those who follow and admire her can certainly judge for themselves. But I think DeGeneres fell short. A rawer, more forceful, and more sober-minded apology was called for here, and it’s a shame she couldn’t get there. As she said during her monologue, “I let myself down.”


PR Disaster Averted: 7 Cases of Good Crisis Management

PR agency pundits and brand watchers love to create “best and worst” lists around marketing and communications developments.  The emphasis usually falls on the “worsts” – like the most badly handled crisis situations, mangled cover-ups, or PR stunts that backfired.

It’s easy to criticize, but what about giving credit for crises averted or PR battles won?  That list is shorter and far less obvious, but here are my nominations.

JC Penney. Penney’s reputation has been worn down in the past year. First, it was outed by The New York Times for “black hat” SEO practices last January. Then, it suffered a visual identity crisis leading up to the announcement of a bold new pricing strategy. Just as it built positive momentum for the “new” JCP, advocacy group One Million Moms threatened a store boycott over its choice of spokesperson Ellen DeGeneres. Rather than try to appease critics, the company stood by Ellen….and, in a brilliant move, it escaped the Lowe’s trap by letting her do most of the talking. Penney’s was betting that Ellen was far more popular than One Million Moms, and it was right. Ellen’s explanation of her “traditional values” is a PR home run. The boycott ended faster than a flash sale.

Planned Parenthood (PP). Most of the coverage of the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood debacle focused on Komen’s lack of preparedness for the public reaction after it dropped PP from its grants program. But Planned Parenthood mounted a first-class response to the potential crisis. After offering an exclusive interview to the AP, it let loose a barrage of news releases and launched a social media campaign to mobilize fans.  Its core strategy was simple; as spokesperson Tait Sye explained, “We gave people things to do.” PP circulated online petitions, shared tweets, posted comments, and launched a no-holds-barred media tour by telegenic CEO Cecile Richards. The public pressure forced SGK to backpedal within the week.

Taco Bell. A year ago, the fast-food chain was the target of a customer lawsuit that served up a potential PR disaster for its brand. A California woman smacked Taco Bell with deceptive marketing claims, saying its tacos have far less beef than advertised. Taco Bell wasted no time in firing back.  The chain went on the offense, big time. It filed a countersuit, posted a video statement from the CEO, and dished out a saucy media campaign featuring the headline “Thank You for Suing Us!” The customer’s beef, and her lawsuit, were quietly dropped, ensuring Taco Bell a place in the annals of crisis management. Well done.

The Red Cross. It was only a rogue tweet, so the risk faced by The American Red Cross last year may not rise to the level of reputation crisis. But its handling of a staffer’s Twitter post about a beer party was a nice example of a measured response. After realizing the employee confused a personal account with a corporate one and shared plans for “gettingslizzerd” on @RedCross, the tweet was quickly deleted. Yet, importantly, it wasn’t ignored. The Red Cross used a light touch, noting, “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.” Best of all, @DogfishBeer joined the fun by encouraging donations, and appropriate replenishment.

Justin Bieber. Oh, baby, what a mess this could have been. When the teen pop star was hit with a paternity suit from a fan who claimed Justin fathered her child, he recognized the risk to his popstar image.  Guided by PR rep Matthew Hiltzik, Bieber delivered an unequivocal denial on The Today Show. Team Bieber then went one better by filing a countersuit and taking a paternity test to prove he was no baby daddy. His comment?  “I know that I’m going to be a target, but I’m never going to be a victim,” hit the right notes. Well played.

o.b. Talk about facing the music. The J & J tampon brand was threatened with a “girlcott” by angry users after it discontinued its popular Ultra item. The customer backlash threatened to take over its reputation, until o.b. defused the situation with a unique response. Its apology PR campaign included a hilarious video that used personalization technology to woo back customers. “Triple Sorry” was a sublime send-up of an uber-schmaltzy music video, complete with rainbows and rose petals and a vow to bring back the product. It was a pitch-perfect response to a potential crisis with double credit to Canada for a downloadable product coupon.

Newt Gingrich. He’s known for flying by the seat of his pants, but the Speaker showed real PR savvy when he needed it most, just before the high-stakes South Carolina primary. His ex-wife’s ABC interview where she claimed he asked her for an “open marriage” could have dealt his campaign a death blow. But when CNN’s John King raised it at the start of the live debate, Gingrich was ready. He denied the story, but not before exploding in indignation and casting the media as the true guilty party. It may not be enough to save his candidacy, but it was a sound strategy that let Gingrich rally his base against that classic GOP enemy – the media.

This is an updated version of a post that originally appeared on MENGBlend.