Imagine you were the communications director at NBC during the past week.
One morning, Don Imus, the long-time host of a steady and most profitable MSNBC simulcasted program delivers the now-famous “Nappy Headed” etc. phrase to describe the women’s basketball team at Rutgers University.
First, there is some growing discontent and feedback among certain factions within the NBC family. Then a little more noise within the coaches and faculty at Rutgers. Soon certain activist factions within the African American community get wind of the remarks and start demanding some kind of action from the network. Blood is definitely in the air.
Since there is no crisis communications plan in place for let’s see, “What do we do if Imus hurls racial slurs at young black amateur athletes and offends them, our employees and others in the process”, you would probably recommend and orchestrate exactly what Imus did. That was to go on other talk programs with African American hosts and utter strong apologizes for his actions. Obviously you would recommend Imus do the same on his own broadcasts. Perhaps even try to meet face-to-face with the offended basketball squad.
Instead of quenching the flame, however, those apologies only add fuel to the fire. Many have already been insulted by Imus over the years and this time a line has been drawn in the sand. Imus’ confessions are just not enough.
All opposing factions now begin to rally. Picketing takes place outside your Chicago studios. Blogs appear from your own employees and on-air talent asking Imus to resign or be fired.
The intensity of the situation is being felt at the very top of the organization. Executives hoping to derail the anti-Imus train decide to suspend him for two weeks.
Hopefully this will quiet the noise.
But then a Board Director from CBS Radio, the network that owns the radio portion of the broadcasts, appears on national television and demands Imus be terminated.
The Board Director fuels the debate which now becomes the lead news item on various news networks including your own. Suddenly companies that support Imus’ TV broadcast through paid advertising become nervous. They ask, What will happen if we continue to promote our products on his show? Will various factions strike outside our offices? Will they stop buying our automobiles, cereal and detergent?
Finally one advertiser announces they are pulling out of the Imus program. Then another one decides to depart. Soon all have folded their tents.
NBC executives are left with little alternative. Since millions of dollars are flying out the door, and perhaps their bonuses, they do about the only thing left to do. They appear on MSNBC themselves and announce they are going to pull the plug on Imus for good.
The entire situation surrounding this fiasco provides an interesting lesson in crisis management, especially in this era of instantaneous communications. Here no one died or suffered physical injuries, but old wounds were opened and feelings hurt. Some emotional pain and suffering apparently did occur. The usual strategy of “apologizing and organizing a ten-point action program to prevent it from ever happening again” was simply not enough. To re-phrase an old expression, once the corral was opened the horses escaped, and this time there was no way to get them back.
Unlike the ongoing crises with pet food, there were no letters of apology in newspapers and magazines. No cans to be pulled off the self. Just the canning of Don Imus.
Sure communicators, executives, marketers, and PR practitioners must pay close attention to all forms of media, including blogs, ezines etc. But content is really king. Words and expressions must be discussed, written, evaluated, edited, re-evaluated and re-edited again. Team members from different backgrounds, ethnicity’s, and groups should have input. Messages should be parsed, cleansed, and re-parsed especially on a national stage. In this most sensitive environment the wrong thought at the wrong time, intended or not, may cause harm and distress. It may cost someone their job, even their career.