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.