When the leader of a corporation (CEO, president, founder, brand icon) is accused of wrongdoing, there are two typical reactions:

  • “Circle the wagons” – and come to the defense of the accused, or
  • “Off with his/her head!” – and let the firing commence.

Sometimes, the response falls somewhere in between, like a bonus clawback or loss of a board seat. However, when the company is itself a media outlet, responsible for reporting the news, the problem can get complicated.

In my last post, “Media Relations Strategy in Crisis: When the News Media is the News,” I discussed ways companies can succeed at media relations despite the media itself being marred in a crisis. In this post, I reflect on how news media “brands” must manage their own brand reputation during and following such crises.

#HimToo?!

Since the Harvey Weinstein story broke last fall, it seemed there was a new “outing” of a “bad boss” on a weekly basis – scores of top-ranked men in the media industry were accused of wrongdoing, from “inappropriate behavior” to rape. A (non-scientific, unofficial) review of how broadcast news media outlets handled reporting of their own internal scandals reveals some interesting differences in their editorial approaches.

  • Charlie Rose (PBS/CBS) – One day after The Washington Post reported that Rose was accused of harassment by eight women at PBS and CBS, both networks fired him. His former co-hosts on CBS “This Morning”, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell, discussed the issue at length, highlighting the impact of the accusations and noting that “Charlie does not get a pass” for his alleged behavior.
  • Michael Oreskes (NPR) – Also the day after a revelation by The Post that Oreskes resigned amid allegations, NPR host Mary Louise Kelly interviewed NPR CEO Jarl Mohn, asking very pointed questions about how the network had allowed this to continue, despite warnings years earlier.
  • Matt Lauer (NBC) – NBC terminated Lauer in short order following his first accusation (later accusations followed). The network notified “Today” co-anchors Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb only minutes before airtime, asking them to read a statement from Chairman Andy Lack. The following day, Guthrie was asked to read a statement of remorse from Lauer. The show has continued to report on follow-up accusations.
  • Roger Ailes/Bill O’Reilly (Fox) – While their accusations and relative ousters predate Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement, it is notable that no mention of harassment was included in either man’s immediate resignation/termination announcements, which occurred several weeks after the allegations came to light. Rather, the network tried very hard to keep accusations and related details, including their number and severity, tightly under wraps.

A Double-Edged Sword

As noted in The Washington Post’s coverage of the media-related scandals, media covering their own stories presents a troubling dilemma: “An outlet risks damage to its reputation by baring its worst side,” writes Washington, D.C. reporter Callum Borchers. “… it also risks damage to its reputation by trying to cover that side up.”

In fact, a recent study by researchers at Stanford University found that companies whose CEOs were accused of misbehavior endured a lasting impact on brand reputation, with references to the CEO’s actions cited in more than 250 news stories over an average of nearly five years. For media companies, the “face” of the company is often its on-camera news talent, rather than a CEO, so the circumstance is comparable. 

For media companies, the “face” of the company is often its on-camera news talent, rather than a CEO.Click To Tweet

Brand Reputation Management: More Than a Band-Aid

To that end, media companies cannot rely on their voice alone to affect brand reputation management after a crisis like this. Here are some lessons from corporate CEO scandals that can be applied to media companies whose leading men have jeopardized their brand:

  1. Speak up. Never let your employees find out about a scandal from news sources (especially competing ones).
  2. Be gentle. When the scandal involves very sensitive or personal topics (e.g., sexual harassment as compared to insider trading), be careful not to blame (or shame) the accuser.
  3. Contain and repair the damage quickly. Acknowledge mistakes, apologize and pledge to make amends.
  4. Be consistent. How you handle accusations at the top must resonate across and throughout the organization.
  5. Make a plan. Your brand will not repair itself. Seek experts who can help identify and execute steps to rebuilding the company’s reputation.
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A professional corporate "storyteller," Brian has more than 21 years of experience in media relations and corporate strategic communications in a variety of industries including finance, healthcare, technology, consumer products and nonprofits. As media director, he works with the Stern team and its clients to identify and apply the latest media relations trends and tactics to secure high-quality media placements and thought leadership opportunities. Off the clock, he creates his own stories with his wife of 10 years and two young children.