PR Failure #26: The Ellen-ments of a Talk TV PR Nightmare

Aaron Blank / September 1, 2020

This month, we begin at at the end. Ellen DeGeneres closes each episode of her wildly popular daytime television talk show by saying, “Be kind to one another.” Unfortunately, it appears some members of the team producing the show didn’t think their boss’ entreaty applied to them. Let’s find out where things went wrong with a show that on the surface set out to do the right thing.

The Story:

Ellen was a successful standup comedian in the 1980s, eventually earning her own sitcom. She rose to wider fame in 1997 when her character, Ellen Morgan, came out, making Ellen the first prime-time sitcom to feature a gay leading character.

Today, her daily talk show, The Ellen Show, endears her to so many and has cemented her as an icon of goofiness and niceness. She’s not just someone you want to sit down with to talk to on TV. She’s someone you want to be your friend.

But, history has shown us that empires are prone to crumbling, and Ellen’s empire built on kindness was not immune.

On July 16, a Buzzfeed News reporter broke a shocking story. According to former and current employees, Ellen’s culture of kindness was built on a toxic environment of racism, harassment, fear and intimidation.

Immediately, reporters jumped on the story, additional news broke out about Ellen’s persona behind the scenes and fans declared their disappointment on social media with hashtags like #EllenIsOverParty and #ReplaceEllen.

 

 

Ellen responded on July 30 with a written apology to her staff. It appeared sincere. She promised change, but was vague about what steps she would take to improve the atmosphere.

That same day, however, another damaging story broke. Thirty-six former employees accused executive producers of The Ellen Show of sexual misconduct. Warner Brothers launched an investigation.

Meanwhile, some celebrities came to Ellen’s defense.

 

 

 

Ellen didn’t make another public statement until August 17, when a show staffing restructuring was announced, including the firing of the accused executive producers.

Still, the discourse and Tweets continued. Viewership plummeted, prompting speculation that the show is headed for cancellation. As of this writing, the show is still on the air.

At its core, Ellen’s situation is about broken trust and the resulting cynicism. It’s a clash between what we want to believe and the reality that’s smacking us in the face. It’s a painful reminder that the celebrities we idolize and adore for their values, for their wholesome behavior, for the sheer “goodness” they exude – sometimes simply are not any of those things after all. Those qualities we respect and admire? Maybe that’s just their brand.

In a world where even kindness can be monetized, how can we trust the celebrities – or any brand, for that matter – to truly walk that talk?

The Failure:

There’s a lot to learn here for PR practitioners and business professionals. Let’s recap the “Ellen”-ments of what went wrong and what we can take away.

Sitting atop the pedestal and feigning a lack of responsibility.
It’s hard to hear “Ellen” and not imagine the smiling, bright-eyed, gregarious TV host. This is by design. Everything surrounding The Ellen Show is made for you to equate the face of the brand with those qualities. The show has a merch store on its website and an offshoot video hub, known as “Ellentube.” The logo for the TV show is simply the word “ellen.” Her production company’s name? A Very Good Production. You get the picture. Like many people who make it big, as her celebrity and business grew, Ellen distanced herself from the employees who make her brand and empire function. In her July 30 letter, she stated, “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. Clearly some didn’t.”

While this may be true, the head of any operation must stay informed about how business is done. Leadership, from the face of a brand to corporate and organizational executives and CEOs, must recognize their culpability in issues that arise and act swiftly and tangibly to rectify missteps. Hopefully, that’s before the issues go public and become a total PR failure. The words of one of the brave employees who came forward have never rung more true as an example for us all: “If [Ellen] wants to have her own show and have her name on the show title, she needs to be more involved to see what’s going on.”

Not planning for a crisis.
Ellen’s initial distance from the situation led to an even bigger PR problem: she lost control of the narrative. The news and social media swept her up in the story of a 180, from nice to mean.

PR pros know that in a crisis situation, you must have a plan in place. When something goes wrong, a crisis communications plan can help you take control of the narrative and own your story. Brands and businesses confront issues every day, from data breaches to accusations of sexual harassment or assault, bias, sexism, ageism, racism. It doesn’t matter if you are a “good” (or even “kind”) person or a small business just getting started, accusations and crises do happen. You must be prepared to address them in an intention way, even if they never come up.

The issue in this case isn’t that Ellen’s been silent. She’s responded and taken steps to remove individuals who harmed employees. Yet, her specific statements are lost in the larger discussion around this PR crisis. They lack intention, seemingly sourced not from a plan but from a place of reaction. In turn, her statements are not strong enough to drown out the dominant narrative around the situation. And now Ellen’s long-term reputation is on the line.

Establishing a values-based brand only at surface-level.
Let’s make something clear: the actions these employees are alleging are unacceptable in any workplace. Unfortunately, they’re everywhere. Yet, there’s something particularly egregious about a brand positioning itself as wholesome, values-driven and rooted in kindness being exposed for a workplace culture that’s anything but.

If you’re centering your brand around your values the people you employ and work with must be clear on those values, too. Your employees are just as much a part of your brand as you are. Make sure they know your brand’s values and how important upholding them is. Here’s how you can demonstrate this on the ground:

  • Onboard employees thoroughly. Define what your companies value mean and set the expectation from the start for your employees to uphold them in the workplace. Go beyond a definition, though – introduce them to what it means to embody your brand’s values.
  • Conduct frequent trainings. Ensure your brand’s value escapes no one, whether a new or long-term employee, top-down and bottom-up. All employees must be on the same page.
  • Establish a viable reporting system. Create and promote a process for calling out misconduct. Design a path to intervention that doesn’t rely only on reporting to supervisors.
  • Outline clear consequences for unacceptable behavior. Demonstrate your commitment to your employees and a safe culture and send a signal that inappropriate behavior (and thus, behavior that might risk your brand’s reputation) will not be tolerated.

The bottom line? If you’re not evaluating and ensuring where and how your brand values are carried out in your business operations, then consumers, employees and allies will call you out and take their attention, business and talents elsewhere

The Path Forward:

The Ellen Show without Ellen would seem a little odd – perhaps even unimaginable. But a reckoning is bubbling up. If things don’t start to improve on The Ellen Show and Ellen doesn’t work incredibly hard to regain consumer and viewer trust, we may change the channel. For now, we’re waiting with our finger on the remote.

Until next month,
Aaron Blank 
CEO + President
The Fearey Group

If you’re curious about what the process of crisis communications looks like, Fearey’s here to help with that – and all aspects of crisis management.

Aaron Blank GIF

Aaron Blank

CEO & President, Partner

Aaron has been engaged in the conversation since the late 1990s, where he discovered his love of media while working at local radio stations. After five years as a radio reporter, anchor, producer and promoter in New York and Connecticut, he and his wife, Lacey, ventured west to begin his career in PR. Soon he caught the attention of industry legend Pat Fearey and the rest is history. Two decades later, as CEO and owner of The Fearey Group, Aaron leads with tireless enthusiasm and contagious drive. In 2014, he became the next generation owner of the firm. He takes his breakfast at 4:30 AM and never eats lunch alone. You can find him working to connect the next business with tomorrow’s leader.

Personal philosophy: do something amazing every day and be fearless!