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Ellen DeGeneres PR crisis communications lessons

Ellen DeGeneres. Image source: Tulane Public Relations via Wikimedia

PR problems for television host Ellen DeGeneres reached a boiling point when BuzzFeed News published an expose that alleged a “toxic work culture” at her show – contrary to the “be kind” image the celebrity has cultivated. More reports then surfaced of racist incidents, sexual misconduct, and poor treatment of employees, putting the future of the show in doubt. PR crisis experts said the celebrity’s crisis communications response fell flat.

Here’s what PR crisis experts think of the TV host’s response and how they believe she can recover.

PR Crisis Mistakes

Lack of a swift response. Three executive producers, taking responsibility for the shows’ daily production, promptly issued an apology. But DeGeneres remained silent for more than a week. That gave reporters time to interview more insiders and publish and dig out more dirt that went unchallenged. Even if DeGeneres herself wasn’t directly charged with misdeeds, her name is on the show and the buck ultimately stops with her. Her reputation suffered greatly by association, but not irreparably.

“In remaining quiet, it appears that Ellen and her team were hoping for the controversy to simply blow over, subsumed by a rapidly shifting media cycle,” Evan Nierman, founder of PR firm Red Banyan states in his blog post. “However, that strategy backfired. Her strategy could apparently be best described as: let sleeping dogs lie. But in the end, those dogs rose to bite her in the rump.”

A lack of accountability. More than a week after the initial expose, DeGeneres sent a statement to staff that was soon leaked to the media. In it, she apologized to the staff and revealed that Warner Bros., the show’s distributor, was conducting a formal investigation of the show — that later led to the ouster of the producers.

Some PR crisis communications experts faulted the statement, saying she deflected blame rather than assume responsibility. Seth Arenstein at PR News called it: “a lawyer-written apology that bordered on a non-apology apology.”

DeGeneres said she promised her program would be “a place of happiness” where everyone would be treated with respect.  “Obviously, something changed, and I am disappointed to learn that this has not been the case. And for that, I am sorry,” she said.

She pleaded ignorance of the inappropriate deeds. “As we’ve grown exponentially, I’ve not been able to stay on top of everything and relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I’d want them done,” she stated. “Clearly some didn’t. That will now change and I’m committed to ensuring this does not happen again.”

The Way Forward for PR Crisis Management

PR crisis experts believe it’s possible for DeGeneres to survive and continue her TV program. Here’s what she must do, they say.

Get Public Support from Warner Bros. Work jointly with the studio to commit to and create a renewed future for the show. Publicize the reimagined elements of the show.

Communicate directly to the audience. The talk show host must reach out directly to the public – and especially her show’s audience. DeGeneres could post a video of herself addressing the public or arrange an interview with a friendly outlet to tell her side of the story, Nierman suggests. It’s essential to come across as authentic and admit any of her failures.

“The main thing she needs to do is to get in front of the camera and talk about the toxic workplace allegations,” Nierman told the Mercury News. “She should make her apologies public. Her audience wants to hear from her. She can talk to millions and millions of people who are inclined to give her a break.”

Get help from friends – and professionals. Celebrities like Katy Perry, Diane Keaton and Alec Baldwin have issued statements in support of DeGeneres. They were probably solicited. Some PR crisis experts believe she has hired professional help.

“I’m guessing that somebody is using their Rolodex to get in touch with as many people as they can, people they know who have had good experiences with her, people who have been supportive in the past,” PR crisis management expert Juda Engelmayer at HeraldPR told Vice. “In this case, you see that it all started on one particular day, so I’m guessing it was a fairly coordinated effort.”

Stage an apology. DeGeneres will probably deliver an apology on her show, and perhaps devote an entire episode to it, the PR experts told Vice. DeGeneres may sit down with experts on maintaining a healthy workplace, or possibly speak to former employees on-air.

Media monitoring and measurement. Media monitoring and measurement, an essential tool in for PR crisis management, will gauge the effectiveness of the crisis management strategy. A sophisticated monitoring service can report overall sentiment toward the TV host and find what tactics need adjustments. Because of the importance of social media, it’s essential to use a monitoring tool that combines social media listening with news monitoring into an integrated, all-in-one online dashboard for comprehensive measurement.

Bottom Line: Ellen DeGeneres committed several mistakes when responding to the recent PR crisis, experts say. However, the TV celebrity can recover by following the PR crisis management playbook, they say.

Download the PR Crisis Playbook