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.