Bill Cosby has long been an American icon. His popularity has known no bounds. From I Spy to Fat Albert to Jello commercials to the iconic Cosby Show he has been an American favorite. The Cosby Show was so popular that it earned him the title of ‘America’s Dad’ and in polls of favorite television dads, his character of Dr. Heathcliff “Cliff” Huxtable was usually number one. NBC who had carried the Cosby Show that had made the network number one in the 1990s was planning on a new show with Cosby in 2015 with hopes of bringing back the ratings gold. It seemed as if Bill Cosby and his success would know no bounds.
That was then. Now Cosby is facing the greatest public relations and career challenge in his life. He has gone from ‘America’s Dad’ to a dirty old man in the minds of many. Allegations of sexual assault (even perhaps rape) that have been hovering around Cosby for years but never really drew media scrutiny became a front-page news in the last several days. Comedian Hannibal Buress went viral with a routine that basically called Cosby (who has preached family values among African-Americans) as a hypocrite and alleging that he was a rapist. Next an Arizona woman came forward and alleged that Cosby had drugged and raped her and other women in the 1980s and 1990s and the media long ignored them.
The Cosby crisis communications response has added fuel to the fire. It has been one of complete silence. No denials of the allegations. Just silence. Television appearances Cosby had have been cancelled. On an NPR interview when the host asked Cosby about the allegations, there was dead silence as Cosby would not respond. The silence has just added to the media firestorm. No doubt some of the silence has been urged by his attorneys (all of this has been a textbook example of what not do during a public relations crisis). But until these allegations are addressed, the media circus will just intensify, especially as we enter the holidays (just ask Tiger Woods about a PR crisis during the holiday period).
So what should Cosby do?
If the allegations are baseless:
- Hold a press conference and firmly and forcefully denounce the allegations. Answer all questions the media throws at him, letting them know that this will be last time he ever addresses the issue.
- Move on with his normal activities.
If the allegations are true:
- Address the allegations, apologizing to the women and his fans.
- Announce that he is seeking help for his root problems that caused such behavior.
- Complete media blackout during his treatment.
- Hold a media interview with a high profile female journalist answering everything and ask for forgiveness.
- Become active in educational programs that use him as an example of sexual assault and rape. He could be a source of inspiration and education.
- Realize that his reputation will never be what it once was.
There is no understating that Bill Cosby is at a crossroads in his career. He has to address the swirling media firestorm, sooner rather then later. If he doesn’t he will be the media’s Thanksgiving dinner and our holiday news for weeks to come. He will also be an abject lesson of what not to do during a public relations crisis.