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.”