Not so long ago, companies who employed high-profile public figures went to great lengths to keep their top talent employed.
For example, it was revealed earlier this year that Fox News had paid five women a total of $13 million to keep quiet about harassment allegations against Bill O’Reilly, all in hopes of holding onto the network’s biggest star.
‘The court of law takes a very long time; the court of public opinion does not.’
– Ronn Torossian, 5W PR
But following the bombshell stories about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, corporations no longer seem willing to protect their star talent, and are taking swift action to cut all ties when such allegations of sexual misconduct emerge.
“I think there’s a court of law and there’s a court of public opinion — the court of law takes a very long time; the court of public opinion does not,” said New York-based public relations executive Ronn Torossian.
“Nobody these days, in the post-Harvey Weinstein era, has the patience to wait to be attacked repeatedly by consumers,” he said.
‘Right side of the issue’
Or, as Randi Rahamim, a principal at the Toronto-based communications firm Navigator Ltd., said in an interview with CBC’s Eli Glasner: “What we’re seeing is a desperation to be on the right side of the issue.”
On Wednesday, Today show co-host Matt Lauer, perhaps one of the biggest names in television, joined the growing list of male celebrities whose corporate masters cut them loose following allegations of sexual misconduct. On the very same day, former A Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor was fired by Minnesota Public Radio over an allegation of “inappropriate behaviour.”
Just last week, Charlie Rose was fired by CBS News, PBS and Bloomberg after several women accused the talk show host and journalist of sexual harassment. Others who have been accused of sexual impropriety and dropped by their employers include actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis CK and journalist Mark Halperin.
It’s all part of the continuing fallout from the allegations against Weinstein, who has been accused of sexually harassing and assaulting women for years. That has prompted many other women, most notably in the entertainment and journalism fields, to come forward with their own complaints.
But before the Weinstein stories emerged publicly, many corporations would have tried to calculate how much they had to pay out to make the allegations go away and preserve their franchise player, Washington, D.C.-based PR expert Richard Levick told CBC News.
“The equation has changed since Harvey Weinstein — which now is that you can’t save the franchise,” Levick said.
“I think that all revolutions are slow until they’re not … and then suddenly iconic events happen.”
Erik Bernstein, vice-president of California-based Bernstein Crisis Management, agreed that it takes one blockbuster case that attracts major media or regulatory attention to blow the lid off a situation.
“Suddenly you see many similar cases arise, and the organizations involved are quite a bit more motivated to take action than they were,” he said.
Damage to the brand
The biggest fear for companies right now is long-term damage to the brand, Bernstein said.
“Here’s the dilemma companies are facing: if you stick by someone and the allegations turn out to be true, you’re going to be viewed as an accomplice to the behavior,” he said in an interview with CBC News. “When the dust settles, there is always a ‘poster child’ for major controversies, and everyone is scrambling to not wind up holding a smoking gun.”
And in the case of Lauer, with a brand like NBC, top executives would be asking themselves if they can withstand the threat of boycotts, the threat of consumers standing against them, said Torossian.
Deborah Knight, owner of Toronto public relations firm DKPR, said it would be impossible for NBC to keep Lauer — in part, because the network has been active in reporting on other stories of alleged sexual misconduct.
“How could they keep Matt Lauer in the organization even if they were unsure if he was guilty as charged?” Knight said. “Because they also had to look at the responsibility they have to the rest of the world. If they’re telling everyone it’s unacceptable and they’re having conversations editorially, how can they keep him on?”
Levick said with the Today show, which has a predominantly female audience, the program can’t be seen as having a “boys’ club” culture.
He said the stories about alleged sexual abuse and the subsequent firings of these entertainment icons — emerging seemingly daily now — are a warning to every company, and it’s not just about money. They can no longer be seen to be condoning the behaviour, nor hide it, Levick said.
“And if you think that the calculus is about … deducting the advertising losses and the rating losses against the rating gains then you’re looking at the wrong things,” he said.