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Lessons From Bill Cosby’s Viral Meltdown

When it comes to the multiple allegations of rape pointed at comedian and actor Bill Cosby, many people are asking, “Why now?” Why are these accusations which date back to 2006 suddenly going viral – all these years later? Back then, Cosby made public denials, settled a civil lawsuit out of court and kept his reputation intact – until now. But why it’s suddenly exploded anew can teach us a lot about how reputation management and real or perceived wrongdoing have changed in the age of the Internet.

Let’s begin with how were the accusations resurrected.  It started recently when a comedian named Hannibal Buress joked about the old allegations as he performed in Philadelphia, Cosby’s home town. A video of the performance was then posted on the website of city magazine PhillyMag.com. After the video was published, Google searches for “Cosby” skyrocketed. It’s worth noting that the Buress comedy routine criticizing Cosby wasn’t new. He’d done it in other venues, but apparently, posting the video created real momentum. Plus, the fact that he did it via comedy, made it more comfortable for people to discuss, and the buzz began.

As the story grew, Cosby’s advisors recommended he say nothing, but that seemed to backfire. The Washington Post reports that “Cosby’s team tried a PR stunt on Twitter by asking users to “meme” the comedian. It backfired. The responses resulted in images of a grinning Cosby captioned with such phrases as, “That feeling you get from being America’s most beloved serial rapist” and “When you realize you got enough cash to pay off the victim.””

The web allows everyone to jump into the conversation, and from that point, social media sites exploded. But Cosby kept up the silence until the Post reports that “On Sunday, he changed course with the 77-word statement from his lawyer, John P. Schmitt, that said that the resurfacing of these stories does not make them true and noted that Cosby will have no further comment on the matter.”

By that time, the media was following the story in a big way. From NPR to network and cable news, reporters were asking questions, interviewing the multiple women making allegations, and from that point there was no turning back.

So whether Mr. Cosby is guilty or not, what can we learn from this situation?

1. The digital world has changed everything.  Today, a simple comedic video can launch a massive, national conversation that can expose, unveil, or destroy. As I’ve said many times, the Internet age has made it easier than ever to create the kind of negative momentum that PR techniques from the past can do little to stop.

2. Not responding could be a big mistake.  In the old days of traditional media, not defending yourself could often seem noble. But as intellectual property attorney Jan Jensen taught me, in the digital world, if you don’t speak up, the other side is the only story that gets told – and it stays online forever.

3. We need to live transparent lives.  The river of information that flows into Google is so massive that people can’t hide anymore. Old DUI convictions, divorces, lawsuits, and more will come up with a simple online search.

4. Have an online reputation strategy.  Today, many churches, nonprofits, and business organizations have at least one disgruntled ex-employee that has created a blog or social media platform focused on criticizing the organization. When you search your name or your organization’s name, what comes up? If it’s a significant amount of criticism, you need to know the options for dealing with those results.

In the case of Bill Cosby, the big question now is how long will this last?  He can’t be prosecuted, since the statute of limitations has expired. But he can suffer financially – as we’re seeing networks drop his TV deals. And perhaps more important, his reputation as “America’s Favorite Dad” is in tatters.

The network news cycle comes and goes, but thanks to the Internet, Bill Cosby is finished forever. Right or wrong, those who live by the media, can certainly die by the media.

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18 Comments

  1. I’m an anomaly Phil. I don’t pay much attention to gossip, media fires, and the like. i stuck by Lance until he admitted it. i still stand with the “innocent until proven guilty.” You raise some very valid issues for sure, especially as they pertain to my profession. I will be interested to see how this all plays out.

    1. The sad thing is – regardless of this particular situation, the digital world also makes it easy to make false accusations against innocent people. It’s important to understand how it works and how to react…

  2. 5. Continually go against our culture and live a life of honesty, integrity, and high character, Do what’s morally right and not what feels good. Then when you deny the buzz, you will have truth on your side.

  3. Here is a clear example of what Abraham Lincoln realized, “… public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.”

  4. Well said Phil. The digital world has indeed changed everything. Being ahead of the story is the key, and that’s difficult when you are hiding.

  5. There is an old saying that it takes a lifetime to build a reputation but only a moment to destroy it. That statement has never been more true. In today’s digital culture you are in the spotlight 24-7. Bad press on the web is akin to a toxic waste spill. To do nothing about it is a dangerous decision. There is only so much clean-up that can be done. Ultimately the toxin must be diluted to the point that is is no longer threatening. So it is with reputation management. Bad things happen online. When they do, it is important to be prepared to dilute the toxin with positive healthy information and pro-actively manage your reputation.

  6. It’s always been true that if you don’t put out correct information about yourself, or your client, that refutes the untrue allegations, then you will be defined by your opponents claims. This is even more true in our digital age. Cosby’s silence in most people’s minds meant he was guilty – where there is smoke there’s fire…but with Bill Cosby there were also numerous people who wanted to take him down to get back at him for calling out the black community on issues, like personal responsibility, black crime, and education. They saw him as selling out and they wanted to ruin his reputation, as an educator and role model, and this was the buzz saw to get rid if him. This was a perfect storm of bad media that he and his lawyers kept hoping would blow over. But instead their silence fanned the flames. It’s never ok to ignore serious allegations of misconduct…you must address the issues and disarm them with evidence or character witnesses to the contrary…otherwise, you risk everything! Because liars lie, you have to tell the truth. But he’s not done yet, he can be rehabilitated, if he’s done nothing wrong. But understand, we all live in digitally built glass houses now!

  7. The Cosby situation reminds me that those who received their media power in the heyday of Mass Media can be completely ill-equipped to successfully navigate in the age of Social Media.

    There indeed may have been a time when a media mogul could demand that the camera be turned off, that words or images accidentally captured would be deleted or that a stern look and a wagging finger on a radio interview would get the newsman to back down. That day is long gone.

    As is gone the day when the voiceless and powerless need to ask favors of media moguls in order to be seen and heard.

    It appears that all of the elements necessary for Cosby’s reputation implosion were already out there in the social sphere just waiting for the right spark. It came. His reputation went.

    When we think of the quote from Baron Acton, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” we normally recall political despots who, insulated by deference and fear, live in a world where critique, observation and law applies to everyone else. I think of this quote not as a comment on Cosby’s guilt or innocence, but on his seeming inability to understand what the public needs from him. If and when he finally realizes it, it may already be too late.

  8. Great analysis, Phil. This scenario exposes so many facets of reputation management. The bottom line, really, is that living a life of character and integrity is essential.

    The digital milieu we live in today is like the all-seeing eye. Virtually nothing will escape it, and the spotlights shine greater as one’s public profile ascends. We as a culture seem obsessed with lifting people up so that we can then tear them down.

    I do believe that not responding is the correct initial move, but with the caveat that the situation must be extremely closely monitored. There is a tipping point (which comes much more quickly today than even five years ago) when you can simply no longer remain silent. To do so would be like a man insisting on sitting in a chair as a room fills with water; he will surely drown–it is just a matter of time.

    When one does respond, one best do so honestly and with humility. We are a forgiving people (perhaps too forgiving at times), but we do not seem to have learned the primary lesson of Watergate, now 40 years hence: that it is rarely the initial misdeed that does us in; it is the denial and cover-up that seals our fate.

    Regarding Cosby’s situation in particular, if there were only one woman accusing him, I think the public would chalk it up to a “she said/he said” and give Cosby the benefit of the doubt. But when multiple women all seem to say the same thing, it’s more like “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” (And, as a side note, that’s exactly how I felt about the Mark Driscoll affair as it unfolded. If there were only one incident in his life I, personally, would have overlooked it. But when you begin hearing multiple accounts of wrongdoing or inappropriate behavior on multiple fronts, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe there’s not a fire there somewhere, if not a total conflagration.)

  9. Great points here, Phil. I find it increasingly difficult to believe he is innocent here, given the plethora of women with similar Cosby horror stories. A small handful can be disregarded, but 16 and counting cannot be swept under the rug. It is indeed a sad story that, true or false, will undermine a lifetime of success. Unlike Lance Armstrong who eventually came clean and owned his deceit, I doubt Cosby (if indeed guilty as charged) will given the heinous nature of the acts in question. Armstrong is guilty of being a lying cheat, but Cosby would be guilty of being a serial rapist and a predatory monster. That would be hard for anyone to own.

  10. And, yet, with many similar offences, Bill Clinton is a media darling. Not justifying Cosby’s actions here, but this smells a lot like the Clarence Thomas media circus. Who did Cosby piss off, i wonder?

  11. With brand reputation in massive jeopardy his attorney’s are looking through the wrong lense on this one. They are leaving the brand open for interpretation through anyone’s lense to decide for themselves what they think. You can’t do that anymore in today’s landscape. Reminds me alot of the Tiger Woods ordeal. Someone from their team needs to provide accurate information and release some answers. Then have a clear strategy of getting information out there. By not responding they are responding, just not the right way.

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