Case Studies

Bill Cosby Treading Water in Rape Allegations

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Whether Bill Cosby is innocent or guilty of rape allegations, his “no comment” strategy is a major PR mistake and will cost him in the court of public opinion and perhaps in judicial courts.

The comedic icon has been dogged for years by allegations that he raped multiple women. At least one woman filed suit that was eventually settled out of court. Last week, another woman, Barbara Bowman, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post where she claims Cosby “brainwashed” her and assaulter her “multiple times.”

Over the weekend, NPR’s Scott Simon asked Cosby about the claims and Cosby said nothing. Literally nothing. Simon ask the comedian three times if he wanted to clear his name and set the record straight and each time Cosby remained silent.

In virtually any crisis situation, “no comment” essentially translates into “I’m guilty.” Traditionally, lawyers tend to believe the best strategy is to just wait until their day in court. That strategy was perhaps more effective pre-Internet when information was constrained to major media establishments and a handful of opinion makers. Today, when it comes to one’s reputation, we all live in the digital world and power is diffused throughout the Internet. The old media establishment and the 24 news cycle are long gone. Individuals and bloggers have credibility and can shape images in real time.

Those facing crisis situations need to adapt to the digital world and manage their reputations on the front end. The risk of a “no comment” strategy is that by the time one gets to court there may be nothing left to defend.

Cosby is embarking on a major concert tour, billed as, “Laughter is universal – Bill Cosby – Far from finished” that will cover nearly 40 shows nationwide. He will also perform in his first television concert in 30 years to be broadcast Nov. 23 on Comedy Central.

Cosby’s silence will not deter media in locals markets from continuing to raise questions about the rape allegations. Nor will his silence likely slow down his accusers; why would it? As long as Cosby remains silent, his accusers repeatedly get “free shots” and by default, they control the message.

While Cosby’s accusers remain on the attack, his reputation continues be diminished and the accusations threaten to derail his “far from finished” tour and perhaps his entire career. If their message continues to resonate, it won’t be long before Cosby’s entire career is defined as being a rapist instead of the lovable comedian he is known as by millions of people worldwide.

As this crisis rages on, the Cosby camp needs to also consider the costs to his business. How much more negative attention will it take before Comedy Central, the network of conscientious Jon Stewart, has to rethink its Bill Cosby special? What will be the environment at his concerts? Will activist groups protest his shows? Will ticket sales suffer?

Bill Cosby needs to take control of his message, whether he is innocent or guilty. If he is innocent, it is important that he look the American people in the eye and proclaim his innocence. He needs to be public in his defense and tell his story far and wide and he must be willing to take questions and be prepared to respond with details. In fact, he should find a respected national television show to present his side of the story – perhaps 60 Minutes or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

If he is guilty, the best thing he can do is to come clean. He needs to address the allegations and tell the American people what happened and why. While doing so would put Cosby in the crosshairs of controversy, he’s already there, so it would be his best shot at a new beginning. He would have to admit it all, ask for forgiveness and then try to rehabilitate his life and his reputation.

Remaining on the sidelines is a mistake. One way or another he should speak up and tell his story.

One of Cosby’s classic stories is a conversation between Noah and God regarding the construction of an ark in anticipation of the Bible’s apocalyptic flood. In Cosby’s version of the story, Noah becomes very frustrated with the process. Noah says to God, “Well, I’m sick and tired of this, I’ve had enough of this stuff.” God, replies, “How long can you tread water?”

In his real life story, Cosby is the one treading water. He needs to build that ark and get to solid ground.

Dan Snyder vs. Public Opinion and Justice

Growing up in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s and ‘80s I always wanted to be an“Indian” when it came time to play “Cowboys and Indians.”  The Indians in my mind were an extension of my favorite football team, The Washington Redskins. This was a great source of pride for me and one that gave me what I thought was an important connection to Native Americans, even though the team’s connection was superficial at best.

Every few years the issue of whether the Redskins’ name is racist would surface(usually when the team was headed to a Super Bowl). Occasionally I would meetNative Americans and ask them about the name. Typically, they said they took no offense to the name and even supported the team. I took solace in the fact that some Native Americans supported the team. The controversy would just as quickly evaporate and everyone seemed to move on.

This time it’s different.The team is quickly headed to a tipping point in which a name change is imminent.

So what is different this time around? Arrogance. Team owner Daniel Snyder challenged the public’s awareness and opened the door for a more complete discussion about the name when he told USA Today in an interview, “We’ll never change the name…it’s that simple. NEVER.” For emphasis, he then said to the reporter: “You can use caps.”

Abraham Lincoln once said, “public opinion, though often formed upon a wrong basis, generally has a strong underlying sense of justice.” It is now clear that the public, along with much of the Native American community, accepted Snyder’s challenge and public opinion has shifted in the name of justice.

Public opinion, followed by business reasons, has forced the team to change in thepast and it’s going to happen again. The team’s fight song, “Hail to the Redskins” hasbeen revised at least twice. The original lyrics to the song included a reference to“scalp ‘em” revised to “beat ‘em.” One version of the song made reference to the“Sons of old Dixie” which was changed to “Sons of old DC.” If “scalp ‘em” was deemed offensive and references to “Dixie” too controversial in the 1960s, then changing the name in 2014 is the logical next step.

The recent U.S. Patent & Trademark Office decision to cancel six Washington Redskins trademarks, calling the team name “disparaging to Native Americans,” may add further weight to tip the balance of public opinion. The action, which is now being appealed by the team, does not have the force of law. One patent and trademark expert who works in the sports industry told me that, “the loss of federal registration does not prevent the team from using its common law rights or state registration as a tool to enforce against infringers.” That source said, “I don’t think the organization will be affected by this unless it wants to change.”

Indeed, the decision could be used as a way out of the growing public opinion opposition for Snyder. It is the opinion of some sports insiders that Snyder has come to the realization that the change is inevitable and now he’s in position to leverage the NFL for greater concessions in return for ending the controversy.

One would hope that the NFL would not give an inch in return for Snyder doing the right thing, but make no mistake, Snyder will look for opportunities find a way to capitalize even in defeat.

A rebranding of the franchise could actually mean millions of new dollars of revenue forthe team. A new name and a new logo means new merchandise and it’s a good bet that the team’s fans, some of the most loyal in all sports, will not only clear out all remaining Redskins merchandise but the new items as well.

It remains to be seen whether a name change will maintain a connection to Native Americans going forward. If it does, the team should build a meaningful relationship between the Native American community and its fan base that provides some level of education about those who lived on this land first.

Sports can be used to better society. It can teach us about hard work, fair play, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. AND it can educate us about our progress as a society. Perhaps if the team maintains the connection to Native Americans,there might be more kids who want to be the “Indian.”

But there must first be change, which will only come as a result of the public’s insistence. Lincoln went on to say, “public opinion in this country is everything.”


Ramsey Poston is a crisis communications expert and president of Tuckahoe Strategies, a strategic communications firm.

NCAA’s Business Model Might be Redefined by Fairness

137286-Griffin_header-480x360This week, as trial begins in federal court regarding O’Bannon v. NCAA, the fate of the NCAA’s current business model comes into question. This case, brought by former UCLA basketball star, Ed O’Bannon, challenges the NCAA’s practice of generating revenue by using a player’s likeness without compensation to the player.

Really, it’s about fairness.

Meanwhile on another front, the NCAA will attempt to roll back a decision by the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago that allows the Northwestern University football team to form a union. The union came about when the student athletes requested their health insurance be extended beyond their scholarships.

Really, it’s about fairness.

Up on Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives will consider H.R. 2903, the “National Collegiate Athletics Accountability Act.” The legislation, introduced by Representative Charles Dent (R-Pa), seeks to eliminate the NCAA’s ban on paying student athletes.

Really, it’s about fairness.
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Obviously, this is a critical time for the NCAA and how it does business. Unless the NCAA goes undefeated on these matters (and others) it’s safe to assume that 2014 will lead to a major tipping point for the NCAA business model. The NCAA is fighting for the status quo and seems to be holding on to as much ground as it can without compromising on any meaningful points.

The NCAA’s public response in each of these instances is consistent. Specifically, the NCAA claims to be the protector of the student-athletes and the importance of education – not money.

In the O’Bannon case the NCAA said, “the NCAA values and prioritizes all of its student-athletes regardless of whether their sport brings in revenue… but efforts to twist legitimate concerns about the current system into a rationale for paying student-athletes would do far more harm than good and would severely diminish the opportunities for academic and athletic achievement student-athletes benefit from today.”

In response to the NLRB decision allowing the Northwestern football team to unionize, the NCAA said, “This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.”

While consistency in public statements is important, they must too be credible in order to be effective. The NCAA, which reportedly makes about a billion dollars a year, is clearly about revenue, it is about money and it’s clear that it is fighting against, not for, student-athletes to protect the revenue streams.

Here’s where the NCAA runs into its credibility issues. The Association and the colleges drive revenue based upon the efforts of the athletes, yet are attempting to convince judges and lawmakers that compensating them would impinge the purity of the student-athlete and do “far more harm” than paying them.

The NCAA and its member colleges and universities generate millions of dollars each year by using current and former student-athletes’ images for everything from the sale of jerseys, video games, DVDs, photos – not to mention revenues from ticket sales and television contracts. The NCAA contends that the student-athletes compensation comes in the form of scholarships, education, housing and so forth. The problem is that this message does not affectively address the issue of fairness. Additionally, The fact that college athletic departments seem to be faced with a never-ending stream of scandals and cover-ups doesn’t help the NCAA position either.

As judges, lawmakers and others make important decisions about the fate of college athletics they will have to figure out whether or not the NCAA’s actions are lawful. However, the essential theme might in fact be “fairness.” When considering the myriad of challenges facing the NCAA, it’s apparent the NCAA and its member colleges are on the wrong side of the fairness question. Most Americans naturally support the idea of fairness (and free markets) and it’s likely the court of public opinion will too.

There is a lot of history on the topic and in most cases fairness has won in the courts and in Congress. Take for example the case of free agency in Major League Baseball. In 1879, what was then MLB adopted the reserve clause, which essentially gave team owners full control of which teams players played for and how they were compensated. That held until the early 1970s when St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood set in motion a challenge that eventually gave way to the modern free agency system. Following the 1969 season Flood objected to a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies. In a letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn he wrote:

“After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.

“It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision. I, therefore, request that you make known to all Major League clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.”

What was Flood asking for? He wanted fairness. The case eventually led to the United States Supreme Court in 1972, which in turn led to the nullification of the reserve clause. Since then every other major American team sport has succumbed to the law and fairness.

In the coming weeks a federal judge in Oakland, Ca will have to decide whether the NCAA’s business practices represent a violation of U.S. anti-trust laws in the O’Bannon case and whether the NCAA has acted fairly.