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Case study: crisis communications gone wrong
Reading time: About 3 minutes
I never thought I’d see the words crisis communications and Jian Ghomeshi in the same sentence. Now, they seem inseparable…
If you don’t live in Canada, you might be unaware that Jian Ghomeshi was a media god in this country. He was host of the popular CBC radio program Q. He was an unparalleled interviewer of celebrities such as Stephen King, Jon Stewart, Lena Dunham and Barbra Streisand. He was a perennial guest host of events such as writers’ festivals, music festivals and AIDS days.
Savvy, articulate, good-looking, warm-voiced he even earned international attention from his deft handling of a wildly difficult interview with Billy Bob Thornton, in which Thornton acted like a petulant five-year-old. (In fact, I’ve even used that event as an illustration of skilled interviewing in some of my own media training classes.)
But all that ended on Oct. 26/14 when Ghomeshi was fired by his employer, for unexplained reasons. “The CBC is saddened to announce its relationship with Jian Ghomeshi has come to an end,” said the tight-lipped press release. “This decision was not made without serious deliberation and careful consideration.” Late Sunday morning I received a text from my brother-in-law: “What’s going on with Ghomeshi?” he asked. A few hours later, Ghomeshi posted his version of events on his Facebook page.
His 1,590-word Facebook message offers some valuable lessons in how not to do crisis communications.
1) Don’t tell people more than they need to know. I don’t CARE about Ghomeshi’s sex life. I don’t want to know he’s into bondage and sadomasochism. What’s in the bedroom should stay in the bedroom. Ironically, Ghomeshi tries to make this point in his own post, but in doing gives explicit details of his own sex life. This is closing the bedroom/barn door way too late.
2) Don’t be so manipulative. Referring to his father’s recent death and what he describes as “a campaign of harassment, vengeance and demonization…from a jilted ex-girlfriend,” is so blatantly designed to make him seem blameless it can only make the reader wonder what he’s hiding.
3) Don’t exaggerate. Ghomeshi uses the word “consent” twice in his post. “It is truly not anyone’s business what two consenting adults do,” he said, and I agree. However, since his post on Sunday eight women have come forward describing non-consensual violent acts. These are all allegations, yet unproven in court. And at this point only one of the complainants has allowed her name to be used. But given that the media could document eight complaints in less than 72 hours, it has to make you wonder how many others are out there?
The post may have been written by Ghomeshi’s PR firm. Or he may have penned it himself. Either way it missed the mark by a country mile.
Let me also point out that I’m not excusing CBC. I suspect they fired Ghomeshi when they (finally) realized that one of the women accusing Ghomeshi was from their own staff. Failing to address this incident when it occurred was a serious lapse in judgment (the woman has since left the corporation) and I’m guessing the public broadcaster didn’t want to look bad. Especially when they knew the Toronto Star was working on an investigative report on Ghomeshi, now public.
Will we ever know what really happened? No. Because this issue cannot go to court. As Howard Levitt explains in his insightful Financial Post story, Ghomeshi was a union employee. This means he has no right to sue (such a complaint must, by law, go to binding arbitration.) But a lawsuit — even one that will eventually be dismissed — allows him to get his own version of events into the public record, without anyone having recourse. (It also allows CBC to do the same.) The suit will also likely discourage most of the accusers from coming forward. One might even suppose that that’s its aim.
Is any effective crisis communications even possible at this point? I suspect not. That’s why his two PR firms cut ties with him this afternooon.
And, while I was writing this post, a friend told me about another person coming forward. This woman has given her name, photo and details of the assault. I’m not sure if this makes her #8 or #9. We’re heading into the double digits, now….