About Imus–is silence the better crisis response?

Longtime crisisblogger commenter Patrick Van de Wille sent me some comments about my post on Don Imus. In it, he asks a very important question and so with his permission, I have captured his email as well as my response:

I’ve been invited to do a presentation on reputation crisis management and the Don Imus situation to a group of communication professors here in Chicago. I hoped for some view of yours on your blog, and I’m disappointed that you didn’t address the Imus situation more fully. I have to say I disagree with what you have written, as well as with the gist of the NY Times piece you reference, which I read when it was published. I don’t believe the problem was that the firestorm was not going to subside (although that may be true) – I believe that the fundamental problem was that Imus actually fed the fire by making himself a news item on a daily basis for close to a week. It is the same error that Michael Richards made a while back, and it is a hallmark not of “old paradigms” but of new reputation crisis management thinking, that advises people to apologize, engage discussion, control the message, move the conversation onto friendlier ground, and attack the attackers if necessary. These were some of the elements of Imus’ effort  and they are also some of the things you advise in Now Is Too Late, if my memory is good.

My view is that “news” like this is fuelled by providing an outlet for confrontation between accusers and the subject, and it only remains news as long as the confrontation exists, and the press can maintain its mantle of “fair and objective” by presenting both sides. If, as the subject of a crisis, you continue to participate in the process, you are feeding it, and your detractors’ message consistency (“He should be fired”) becomes a strength. As a crisis manager, the objective must then be to remove one of those elements – namely, your client – from the process. Once that occurs, the press finds itself in a position of pursuing the story with only one side – something they are loathe to do – or dropping the story. In that case, the detractors’ message consistency becomes a liability – it is no longer news.

I’m curious to get your thoughts on this before I present, which is late next week.

Here is my response to Patrick:
My own view on this is that you are raising the stickiest question in crisis communication which is at what point do I, by responding, fan the flames? There are certainly cases where that is a problem and I have made the mistake myself of deciding to take a very proactive position only in retrospect to see that is contributed to the problem. That being said, I am extremely reluctant in today’s complex media environment (including online media) to withdraw from the field. For one, I don’t agree that that means the comments will go away–either from mainstream media or from the blog world. I don’t think the media believes they need the main source to participate in order for them to be fair. Their only criteria for deciding coverage is if the audience is interested. Certainly audience interest can be fed by the participation of the subject, but in this case, I think audience interest would have been there anyway.

In my view, Imus needed to be highly visible to do exactly what he tried to do: apologize, and try to show that he got it. The problem in this case, his comments so violated the public view of good character, that in the same way as Michael Richards (and to a large degree Mel Gibson) the comments revealed in the public’s view a deep-seated racism that is simply unacceptable today. Saying you are sorry does not undo that perception. The only argument that I can see for Imus to quietly go away is to recognize that he was in an absolutely no win situation.

It’s a tough one and in my mind, open for a variety of approaches. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this.
Thanks Patrick.

2 thoughts on “About Imus–is silence the better crisis response?”

  1. Patrick makes a great contribution to a difficult area. I have two observations. First, the fact that thr is no easy answer is why crisis response and counselling an organization is an art. participating in the debate can sometimes give a story stronger legs than absenting yourself.
    Second, in relation to the don imus issue what contributed to the story was the fact that imus broke the golden rule of apologies – do it and without any strings attached.

  2. I agree that it’s an art. At the same time, I think communications pros have a natural tendency to feel like the answer to any challenge lies in careful messaging, whereas in this case I think understanding the mechanics of press functioning is more crucial. In cases where the “story” is a public debate, ongoing coverage usually requires two willing sides to an issue or the story has no legs. Take away one side, and I think the Imus story would have needed more than resignation calls from Sharpton and Jackson to build momentum.

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