Duck Disaster

I don’t watch much television these days unless the letters N, F, and L are prominently involved, but even I am dimly aware that Duck Dynasty is a huge phenomenon. A show has to have made the big time to take up a good portion of a display wall at Calendar Club all by itself during the Christmas retail rush.

Of course, as many know, controversy overtook Duck Dynasty this week. Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Robertson family of duck-call manufacturers, was quoted in GQ magazine making remarks that were perceived to be disparaging towards gays. The A&E channel, which produces and airs the series, quickly condemned the elder Robertson’s remarks and they announced that he would be taking an extended hiatus from appearing on the show.

If you have enough people on Facebook or Twitter, you’re bound to see an outcry about this decision start appearing in your newsfeeds. The accusations about thought police, political correctness overreach, oversensitivity, and the spinelessness of A&E will fly. It will be argued that the Robertsons have never made any bones about their Christian worldview; the talk about what is and isn’t sinful is just an extension of that. Phil should have the right to say what he believes.

And you know, they’re absolutely correct. Phil Robertson should be free to talk about his faith, and his personal beliefs—however unpopular or unappealing they may be to some—if he chooses to do so.

Except he kind of was able to do that, now wasn’t he? The outcry isn’t over him being denied the opportunity to express his views, rather it’s over the punitive measures he now faces for doing so. But that being the case, it needs to be remembered that there is a difference between the meanings of censor and censure. Freedom of speech doesn’t always mean free from consequences.

Phil Robertson has a right to free expression, but the companies he associates with also have the right of free enterprise. Duck Dynasty isn’t the public square; it’s a corporately produced TV program.  Insofar as the show is concerned, Phil Robertson is an employee of A&E. And you can wager that he has a contract that stipulates that he not engage in behaviour or make comments that could prove injurious to the program, cause it to lose sponsors and so forth.  A&E foots the bill; they get to make the calls. Furthermore, Phil isn’t being denied free speech because he has plenty of other avenues available to him. He could express himself through self-produced webisodes or he could crowd-fund his own series if he convinced enough of his pissed-off fans to pony up some cash for it.  

From a crisis management standpoint, A&E has handled this situation well. They demonstrated moral leadership by being decisive about removing a key figure from one of their top properties, and they were unequivocal about condemning statements that were out of step with their corporate values. Which is wise, because shows come and go in popularity, and today’s first family of reality TV can be tomorrow’s Trivial Pursuit answer—to wit: the Osbourne family. But people remember how media outlets comport themselves.

A&E’s swift response also earned some quick praise from GLAAD, which quickly became part of the story. And by phrasing the elder Robertson’s departure as “a hiatus”, they left the door open for his eventual return.

Which is probably what will happen. I don’t know if Phil Robertson will find his way on to the “contrition and apology” circuit, but I imagine that even if he doesn’t he’ll be back on Duck Dynasty after some time has passed. And I’m sure most fans of the show will welcome him back, just as most will keep watching while he is gone.

However, any show with an audience as big as Duck Dynasty’s almost certainly counts some gay, lesbian, and bisexuals amongst its viewers. Not to mention liberal-minded fans and even Christians who would prefer to see their faith served up with a more tolerant outlook. Will they remain onboard as watchers? It’s likely that many will, despite some reservations.

Still, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that this is a breakpoint for the program. It will keep going, but for many its charm won’t ever be quite the same. It’s even possible there will be a few less Robertson clan calendars, bobbleheads, and books on sale in mall end-caps come next Christmas-time.

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Thoughts on the Rob Ford PR Fiasco

I

There’s a new entry in the lexicon of public relations boondoggles and its name is Rob Ford. When you have a political scandal where the mayor of a five million-person metropolis is caught on video smoking crack cocaine, and somehow that isn’t the most-shocking or lurid moment, then it’s time to declare that we are venturing into an undiscovered country in terms of PR disasters.

Ever since the Toronto Police confirmed on October 31 that they had obtained the long-rumoured video of Ford smoking crack and making derogatory remarks, the embattled mayor has proven able to continually one-down himself in ways that beggar belief. After the Toronto Star released a sad video of a severely intoxicated Ford ranting about killing someone, there was a brief outpouring of public sympathy towards the mayor, and there were many urgings for him to get help for his very obvious personal demons. But since then, Ford with his defiance and ill-chosen remarks has found ways to squander much of that public concern and good will.

At this point, Ford’s reputation is beyond irreparable. His antics have managed the rare feat of enraging the entire political spectrum; left-wingers already found him to be anathema and now they can’t stand him even more, while many conservatives are left fuming at his dissembling and use of Bill Clintonesque semantics to try and explain his behaviour.

They’ll be talking about this imbroglio in public relations and crisis management books for the next 150 years. The hard thing to figure out here is what exactly the lesson is or what the teachable moments are. Other than Rob Ford did everything completely wrong.

II

Was there a play that might have offered Ford some measure of redemption, or at least the opportunity to salvage some credibility and dignity? Likely, the only thing he could’ve done would be to have owned up to his sins when the first stories about the then-alleged crack video surfaced in May. Doing this could have engendered public sympathy, and he would have received some kudos for being forthright at a time when the tape’s existence was still uncertain.

But there would have been risk in that. When the allegations began, I thought about whether the mayor of a major urban centre could hope to keep his position after confirming that they smoked crack and consorted with drug dealers. The answer I came up with – Marion Berry notwithstanding – was almost certainly “no.”

So in a way, Ford’s early decision to go the stonewalling route is understandable. And for a while, against all odds, it looked like it might even work.

Unfortunately, it’s always a thin line between a ballsy gamble and an idiotic decision. If this were the 1960s and the Ford inner circle was reasonably confident there was only one Zapruder-like film of him sparking up a glass pipe in existence, then maybe it would’ve worked, given the apparent strength of the mayor’s underworld ties. They might have been able to obtain and destroy it and no one would have been any the wiser.

However, this being the digital age, they probably should’ve operated on the assumption that said video had been copied several, perhaps many times. As such, its eventual surfacing would be quite likely. And once it did, they should have concluded that Ford’s mayoralty would then become untenable.

III

One of the important tests used in civil law is the standard of the “reasonable person.” What would a reasonable person believe would happen to the mayor of Canada’s largest city if said mayor admitted to smoking crack, buying illegal drugs, and drinking and driving, in addition to having a host of related unproven allegations swirl around him during his time in office?

Most reasonable people would almost certainly think that the mayor – Rob Ford in this case – would be out of his position in no time. He’d resign of his own volition, bow to pressure and resign, or be forced out some way or another.

You would think. However, if one thing has become clear throughout the course of this sordid mess, it’s that the cruise missile of rational thought has yet to penetrate the Ford bunker. Even in the teeth of all this mounting disgrace, Ford remains insanely committed to carrying on. Not resigning, nor even taking a leave of absence. And likewise, he is unshakeable in his determination to finish out his term as mayor and then stand for re-election in 2014.

And, as there is no legislative option available to either impeach him or have him recalled, it seems that, incredibly enough, he might actually be able to do this. Even his future political prospects can’t be completely written off. Although some recent polls have cast a pall over his prospects for re-election, he still retains enough of a base of supporters that it would be conceivable that he could squeak out a victory in a race with several other strong candidates to divide the anti-Ford vote.

Despite all the damage done to his reputation and to the reputation of Toronto, Ford keeps lumbering forward, bizarrely unsinkable, like the giant World War Two aircraft carrier that the British proposed to build out of ice and sawdust.

IV

There are lessons and cautionary tales that can be extracted from the Ford situation. The biggest one, that politicians and similar public figures, and the public relations people who advise them, should be aware of, is the phenomenon of the shrinking private sphere. Small electronic devices that can record videos are going to continue to proliferate. High-profile individuals are going to have to be more aware of the possibility that they could be surreptitiously recorded in unguarded moments.

Of course, instances where political leaders are filmed smoking crack or consorting with gang-bangers will probably still be rarities. Situations like Mitt Romney’s ill-judged musings about 47 per cent of Americans being dependent on the government will be more the norm. Although, you do have to wonder what sort of chicanery occurred in the past when it was harder to document personal frailties.

But mostly, the lesson from this unwinding affair is that it’s still possible to be amazed. Rob Ford has taken us to new lows, and it’s possible we haven’t even found the bottom yet. His actions are one thing, but even more astounding is his attitude. You can only marvel at the degree of cognitive dissonance it takes for him to declare that a city worker should be fired if they were to be seen sleeping on the job. Yet, his own admissions of smoking crack, being publicly intoxicated on multiple occasions, drinking and driving, and shattering the boundaries for on-camera decorum with this interview are apparently all forgivable because he can admit to making mistakes and sometimes apologizing for them.

Whether it’s Ford himself, the daily media circus, or the surreal atmosphere at Toronto city hall, punctuated by ex-pro wrestlers and people dressed like this showing up, there comes a point where you just have to abandon hopes of understanding this fiasco while it is still unfolding. The only thing to do in the interim is to try to admire the chaos.