Public figures typically have to make a strategic choice when the press is demanding answers: speak out or clam up. Bill Cosby and his PR team are currently attempting to do both, and it’s not working.
Before assessing Bill Cosby’s public relations efforts, here’s a brief recap of the events that have landed him in the middle of this media maelstrom.
In late October, comedian Hannibal Buress made headlines by calling Cosby a “rapist” during a performance in Philadelphia, Cosby’s hometown. The name-calling made headlines for its sensationalism, but also because it made reference to a lawsuit Cosby settled in 2006 in which at least 13 women accused him of drugging and sexually assaulting them. The video of Buress’ set went viral, and a feeding frenzy in the press ensued.
Since then, Cosby’s attorneys have been inconsistent in their responses, calling the accusations “decade-old” and “discredited,” before revising their statements, presumably to avoid violating the terms of the 2006 settlement.
As public hysteria around the story has mounted, Cosby has tried to act as though everything is fine. He has kept some of his media appearances, simply refusing to answer questions about the accusations. In particular, Cosby’s appearance on NPR shows how ineffective he has been at responding to the allegations. Faced with a question on the subject, Cosby simply shook his head and refused to speak. Keep in mind this was a radio interview, so his silence led to an awkward and uncomfortable pause.
Similarly, in a videotaped interview with the Associated Press on November 6, Cosby refused to address the allegations, and then with the cameras still rolling asked the reporter not to use the footage. With the story growing hotter by the day, the AP decided on November 19 to release the full footage from the interview for the first time.
With a loan of his impressive collection of African art to the Smithsonian, a new TV show in the works and a standup special slated for Netflix, Cosby seemed to think he could simply ignore these claims. But Cosby’s team (which may or may not have included crisis communications consultant) should have known that salacious allegations involving sexual assault are not likely to be ignored by the press. An interview that didn’t even broach his reaction to the developing story would amount to ignoring the elephant in the room.
Like most crisis situations, the Bill Cosby PR fiasco did not surface out of nowhere. Cosby and his team have had over a decade to prepare for these allegations to erupt. The apparent failure to plan for addressing questions on the topic is causing what appears likely to be irreparable harm to his reputation.
Like Cosby, all companies, organizations, and individuals have the opportunity to forecast what likely problems and determine how to respond. The details may be different in each case, but the one unifying element is that most companies can make an educated guess as to the arenas from which their crises are most likely to emanate and prepare proactively to address them publicly.
In Cosby’s case, he should make up his mind and either start defending himself or admit wrongdoing. His unwillingness to engage tells the public that he is either guilty, has something to hide, or both. As his lawyer pointed out, just because allegations are repeated over and again does not make them true. However, if the allegations are false, then he should come out swinging.
The fallout has been serious. NBC shut down the new TV show it had in the works. Netflix canceled his upcoming comedy special, and Viacom pulled reruns of The Cosby Show from TV Land. Real damage is being done. And the man who has spent the better part of his 77 years talking to America is sending messages even though he is saying nothing.