The Bill Cosby brand was built over the years by his ability to bridge the racial divide and a belief that he stood for traditional values. He was praised for lecturing young African-Americans about the importance of raising children in a two-parent household. During his heyday, appearing as Dr. Cliff Huxtable on NBC’s The Cosby Show, he was seen as America’s dad. According to surveys, his character was one of America’s most popular television dads ranking up with Mike Brady from the Brady Brunch and Jim Anderson from Father Knows Best.
Yet now the Cosby brand is tattered. Allegations that he sexually assaulted and raped women in the 1980s and 1990s had already burnished his image. On July 6th, the brand image was shattered when depositions of Cosby from a 2005 civil case brought against the comedian by a woman who alleged a sexual assault by him were released. In the documents, Cosby admitted to drugging women he wanted to have sex with by giving them prescription Quaaludes. Overnight, most of his defenders turned on him. Cosby seemed to turn into Tywin Lannister or Stannis Baratheon from Game of Thrones rather than, America’s dad, Cliff Huxtable.
The iconic Cosby brand is damaged, beyond repair. He will remain a comedic genius (no one can dispute his talent) but the brand that was built upon his emphasis on wholesome values and addressing social issues among today’s youth is shattered. The reason is Cosby ran afoul against the number one rule of branding – to be successful the brand must be honest and authentic. As these allegations and depositions clearly show, the private Cosby and the public Cosby were two different people. No brand can survive such a revelation. The Cosby brand that had endured for years is no more.
Now the question is can anything be salvaged for Cosby. The answer is not much. NBC last year when the allegations hit a crescendo nixed plans for a comedy show starring Cosby. TV Land and others pulled The Cosby Show reruns. Colleges and other forums that had regularly booked him as a speaker are sure to cancel appearances. What does remain is a chance for Cosby to make an amends with the public that supported and believed in his brand for so long.
So what should he do?
- Come clean with what exactly happened and apologize. His lawyers will be against this since it will open him up for judgments in the civil lawsuits he is facing and could invite additional potential lawsuits. Yet it will offer the only chance for him to apologize to fans and ask for forgiveness.
- Admit that he has a problem and seek help.
- Fade from the public spotlight as he seeks counseling.
- Re-emerge and work to educate youth, using his rise and fall as a lesson. This could actually be his greatest legacy.
Those are the steps she should do. What should he not do?
- Go silent. Although lawyers love silence to the public it is an admission of guilt
- Attack his accusers. This will make him look even worse.
- This will deepen the damage done to him.
Bill Cosby was an American icon and now a lesson for brands. If the public image and the private are not the same, the public will feel betrayed and turn on the brand.
As we enter the Thanksgiving week (traditionally a slow news time) the public relations crisis confronting comedian, Bill Cosby continues to escalate and will very likely dominate much of the holiday news cycle. Sixteen women have come forward alleging that Cosby, who has long been an American icon, sexually assaulted or even raped them, often drugging them during the encounters. Cosby has refused to address the issue claiming he doesn’t respond to innuendos. His attorney has claimed that many of the allegations which are decades old are being raised with the intent to get money from Cosby.
Yet Cosby’s refusal to address the allegations is not stopping the damage to his brand among the public and the television networks. NBC which had aired the Cosby Show in the 1990s, (a show that made his character, Dr. Cliff Huxtable, one of the most popular television dads ever) announced it was cancelling plans for a 2015 sitcom with Cosby. TV Land pulled reruns of the Cosby Show from their schedule. Netflix announced that a comedy special that they had taped with Cosby to air on November 28th had been postponed indefinitely. Several venues where Cosby was to perform his comedy routine cancelled his appearances. Among the public is a growing perception that Cosby’s silence is a tacit admission.
Damage has been done to the Cosby brand. At this point in his career, these allegations will remain attached to his brand and his legacy unless totally disproven.
So what if anything can Cosby do?
If these allegations are totally baseless, he must address them head on. A spokesperson issuing a blanket denial or a general denial by Cosby himself will not be sufficient. He or his spokesperson must refute each allegation in detail. Nothing else will satisfy the media, sponsors, networks, and the public. The allegations are so devastating that only a detailed response disproving them will stop the firestorm. This means that if Cosby had sex with the women but it was consensual it must be addressed. Cosby has to recognize that unless he can absolutely disprove the allegations his reputation will be tarnished.
If there is any validity to these allegations, Cosby still has to address them and beg for forgiveness. Then he needs to cancel all appearances and realize his career as he knew it is over.
Or he can continue to remain silent. Under such circumstances he should cancel appearances at colleges where violence against women is a major issue as the image of Cosby speaking there when under this could is totally inappropriate.
Silence though in the long term will not work for Cosby. Brands and celebrities should learn from Cosby on what not to do. Not addressing a crisis either by denying it or accepting responsibility and asking forgiveness is seen as an admission of guilt. Silence also creates a greater media firestorm and crisis as Cosby is finding out. The longer that Cosby stays silent the longer the media will address this story.
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.