It’s interesting to get a behind-the-scenes look at how one of the world’s most powerful business leaders handled a public relations crisis. I think we can agree, if you get one swirling around your business, there’s no such thing as “a 100 percent positive outcome.”
Robert Iger, who stepped down this year as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, dealt with a situation just like this in 2018. In his book, “The Ride of a Lifetime,” he recounts the experience of navigating controversy over Roseanne Barr’s insulting, degrading tweets about former White House advisor Valerie Jarrett.
I’ve been in the mastermind business for close to a decade now. There’s never been a year so tense as 2020, and you might assume I don’t have many issues. After all, most of the members of the online mastermind groups I lead are Christ-following male entrepreneurs. I’m happy to report, we don’t have any members doing what Roseanne Barr did!
But we do have a responsibility to think about and discuss how to handle a situation like that ahead of time. And if you’d believe it, I’ve faced several moments where I’ve been challenged to take a side, or lower my standards, or change the mission and agenda of Iron Sharpens Iron.
The Price of Talent Without Character
Iger wrote that he liked the idea of bringing Roseanne back to primetime TV. For a while, it appeared to be working. Her show was doing very well in the ratings. He confessed to being aware of her habit of saying outrageous things on Twitter.
Well, if you ask me, even a blind man on a galloping horse could foresee controversy if you bring an entertainer like Roseanne Barr back into the limelight. She was controversial back in the 1980s, when her sitcom with John Goodman became one of America’s favorites. The Bible tells us that “you know a tree by its fruit.” Personally, it seems like Iger was willing to roll the dice until something really bad happened.
Then, something really bad did happen. Roseanne turned her finger, usually pointed at people who are “culturally appropriate” to mock, on some people who could make things painful for Disney and ABC, the network that carried her show. This is the danger of outspoken people in your organization - not whether you agree with them or not! It’s an issue of self-control.
By observing this, I don’t for a moment want to defend what Roseanne did. Her comments were inappropriate by any measure, and threw more gasoline on a fire that was already burning. Iger seems to have known this would happen:
What I’d forgotten, or minimized in my mind, was how unpredictable and volatile Roseanne has always been … I thought she was wonderfully talented, but I also got a close-up look at how mercurial and volatile she could be.
This just makes me think of risks we’re willing to take when we find someone who’s “good at what they do.” We can’t afford to look the other way when it comes to their character, integrity and self-control, no matter how gifted they are. It always comes with a price tag if we don’t do our homework and think through the implications of working with them.
Outspokenness Is a Liability
If you ask me, outspokenness is way more of a problem than it used to be. For one thing, the internet has a much longer memory than people do. We’ve seen this with the ongoing “cancel culture,” where people’s careers and shows get pulled off the air because of things they said ten years ago. There isn’t much forgiveness or mercy in the battle for people’s attention.
While I have tremendous respect for the fact that we are thinking beings who have opinions … I’m forced to agree, we should be prepared to pay a price for associating with people who are outspoken. This doesn’t mean we never speak, nor do I want anyone to feel pressured to change their opinions.
But more than ever, we need to pay attention to the “temperature” of a conversation before we say what we believe. That’s why I’m protective of my social media space. I never discuss sensitive issues on it. My videos are overwhelmingly positive, we welcome people of different faiths and backgrounds into our mastermind groups and I cheerfully appear on podcasts with people who think differently than I do. I can discuss these matters … but I won’t do it with strangers, or people where I have no measure of trust or affection.
How To Deal With a Loose Cannon
I don’t claim to have a process or method for doing this, but it isn’t always obvious when someone has a problem taming their tongue. Especially in a job interview. You have to be willing, at some point, to ask some questions and demonstrate vigilance about what people are up to on social media.
One decision you should be very clear about up front is whether you view your mission as related to hot button issues. This is more difficult to define if you are connected to them. If you’re not there to stir the pot, I think it makes sense to tell people, “There are many employers who are fine with you airing your opinions aloud. I am not one of them.”
Another crucial tool is a business coaching service or mastermind group online. In some other stories we’ve previously discussed, Iger was at his best picking team members when he consulted with others. Some companies make use of things like the DISC assessment, or personality tests, to try to determine what kind of person they’re dealing with. I think those can be helpful, if you’ve got someone running off the rails.
But once that person represents your company, the main thing people need is a coach or mentor. You’ll have to judge whether you can offer that directly, or build a mentoring system within your business as standard operating procedure.
I believe there are times, especially on behalf of your team, you need to act as a shield for them. But this is about people who freely, voluntarily comment about other people or things online, without context or authority. You will only make things worse, trying to fight an angry mob.
Mobs thrive on negative emotions. That means the only weapon you have against them is removing the target, even if your business is compromised in the process. There is no response you can give that won’t be used against you - as Iger discovered when he fired Roseanne. But Disney’s shoulders are a lot bigger than yours.
If you can hold your tongue and your nerve long enough, the nature of mobs will take effect. They need a target for their hatred, and once their current target disappears, they’ll move on to attack someone else.
If you feel vulnerable in this era, I’d suggest you join a group of trusted advisors who care about you. Applications are currently being accepted for Iron Sharpens Iron. Go to our website today and get yours in!