Two interesting situations for crisis managers to think about: Don Imus and the Duke Lacrosse situation.
Imus is toast, like Michael Richards. The comments are so egregious that it is hard to interpret them as anything other than reflecting some deep-seated animosity and thoroughly unacceptable attitudes–unacceptable to our times and social sensitivities. I find it interesting that when white guys make these kinds of racial slurs that they go to the Jesse Jacksons and the Al Sharptons to make their apologies. One thought–the effectiveness of that is wearing off. While it may have been surprising before, it has suddenly become a habit. That may mean that even more stunning and surprising ways of showing remorse are required. In crisis management terms, apologies and remorse must always be accompanied by actions that demonstrate that you understand the seriousness of the offense and that will give some assurance that it will not be repeated. It is hard to accept any apology in these sorts of situations without the requisite acceptance that the offense is a sign of something quite significantly wrong. And that is both hard to do and potentially damaging. What can Imus say? I recognize that at heart I am an anti-female racist and now I am going to fix it? That’s why these sudden, unexpected, and deeply offensive and very public comments are very difficult to overcome. Michael Jackson is in a similar situation. Forgiveness becomes possible if he would be willing to recognize that he has a sexual problem involving children. But such an admission would be career suicide, but without it, there is little hope for reconciliation with a public that expects better.
As for the Duke situation, what is interesting to me is the white hat/black hat phenomenon. When the story broke, like all similar stories, the media played out the melodrama according to script: the white hat was the prosecutor, the black hats were the lacrosse players (and the university for not monitoring a rogue program better) and the victim was the stripper. As I have counseled in my book, this blog and to clients, some times, in extreme situations, your only recourse is to work to move the hat. Time and the facts apparently have moved the hat here. Now it is squarely on Nifong’s head–and of course the victim is no longer the victim but is now also wearing a pretty black hat. The boys are now the victim and the media may even play themselves as the white hat here.
The lesson for crisis managers is when you have the black hat on you are in a tough spot. In large part because once the media decides the story it wants to sell, it is very difficult to see that they may have it wrong. My answer is you must tell the story yourself. It’s a difficult situation, but if those responsible for communicating on the university’s and the boys’ behalf had been confident of the boys’ innocense (difficult while under the firm conviction of the media in the early days and weeks) they should have told the story as it is now being told. An over aggressive prosecutor who intentionally ignored evidence contrary to what he wanted to believe. A “victim” who was no victim but a malicious liar. And boys, guilty of putting themselves in a stupid and vulnerable position but who ultimately would be viewed as the victims.
Moving the black hat while under the intense pressure of a story that fits the media story telling mold so well, is very difficult. But in some cases, it must be done. And, when you need to do that, you need a crisis manager of the likes of Eric Dezenhall–combative, aggressive, angry, and righteous. (See my previous post).