Insights from ABC’s pitch-perfect slap-down of Roseanne Barr — plus commentary by Melissa Agnes

On Twitter, Roseanne Barr described Obama’s aide Valerie Jarrett as the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes. After this profoundly offensive and racist statement, ABC cancelled the very popular reboot of Barr’s sitcom “Roseanne.” ABC’s statement was the epitome of brevity, clarity, and punch:

Statement by Channing Dungey, president, ABC Entertainment

Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.

The only thing I could do to improve that is add an Oxford comma.

How to be ready for anything

Statements like this don’t happen by accident. ABC’s response in this crisis reflected careful planning — the kind Melissa Agnes describes in her book Crisis Ready. To reveal how a response like this comes to be, I conducted a chat with Melissa this morning on Facebook Messenger. Here’s a lightly edited transcript.

Josh: Hi, Melissa. I’m guessing you saw the news about Roseanne Barr and how she got her show cancelled at ABC.

Melissa Agnes: I did indeed.

Josh: I have to say, I was impressed by the firm and very brief response from ABC.

Melissa: When something like this happens (when you are thrown into a controversial viral issue), there is a recipe for response:

Be thoughtful – think through the situation in alignment with your organization’s core values, understand both sides of the controversy, assess the risk, etc.

Be decisive – make a decision based off of your values, this understanding, and the assessment, and…

Be clear and concise – a short, strong statement that clearly explains your position, decision, and reasoning.

Then, be quiet.

Controversial issues are not ideal – especially when you’re thrown into them – because segregation is inevitable.

Therefore, you want to be thoughtful, decisive, clear and concise, and then let the conversation unfold as you’ve made your stance.

ABC did this well.

Josh: Let’s take this apart a bit, because you have a lot to say there.

For example, “be decisive.” On the one hand, ABC didn’t want to be associated with a person who compared an Obama advisor to an ape. On the other, this was a hit show with a lot of revenue associated with it. The tendency would be to hedge. But in the end, they decided quickly.

I think they thought it through (your point one) and decided the advertisers would soon be deserting them.

Melissa: They needed to decide quickly. They would have been faced with rising virality and criticism against them had they not.

Josh: And “clear and concise” — well, they were fantastic at that. Very brief statement.

I also noticed this tweet from Bob Iger, who is the CEO of Disney, ABC’s parent company.

That speaks to a coordinated corporate strategy.

Melissa: It is also possible that they were (crisis) ready for this type of event, as it was a predictable high-risk situation with Barr

If they were my client, they would have been, so I would not put it past them.

Josh: As I saw this unfold, I definitely thought of your book, which recommends putting a plan in place. But I guess with Roseanne Barr, you know just what to prepare for. Her tweeting something offensive is about as predictable as the fact that an airline will, at some point, face a plane crash event.

Melissa: Yes. The only “failed” part of their response, which is difficult to do in this type of high-speed, escalating situation: is that many of the cast and crew learned they were out of a job by Twitter and the news of ABC’s response.

But again, it’s very difficult to alert hundreds of people, when there’s a need for speed of decisiveness and response

Josh: Hmm. If they went slow and told everybody what was going to happen, they would have been perceived as not responding appropriately. Stonewalling.

Melissa: Precisely.

Josh: I think this is a case where you do the right thing and then pick up the broken pieces later.

Melissa: It could have been done simultaneously, but this would have taken much preparedness in advance to have that system in place – and thought about at all in the heat of the moment.

Josh: I’m just imagining the “Roseanne toxic tweet” plan including an email to the actors and crew.

Luckily the show is on hiatus now. Shows get cancelled between seasons often.

Melissa: Yes – I believe yesterday was the writers’ first day back, and they found out as they walked into work. I believe I read that somewhere…

Josh: What about boycotts? I’m sure the Trump-backers will now boycott ABC, Disney, Lucasfilms, Disney resorts, Disney Cruises, etc. And Trump himself may fire at ABC with a tweet, if past history is any guide.

Melissa: ABC did really well with their response to this incident – and controversial issues are not easy.

Segregation was inevitable, no matter the stance ABC would have chosen.

This is what makes controversial issues so difficult, and why it’s so important to be thoughtful, decisive, and concise in your statement.

It’s the recipe for mitigating as much harmful impact as possible

Josh: From a moral perspective, I think they did the right thing. But from a practical perspective, they had 3 choices: a) continue with the show b) cancel it, and c) equivocate and wait. All three have downsides, but they probably chose the least bad option. Interestingly, option c) is the worst, since then EVERYBODY hates you.

Melissa: Precisely! And to choose between a) and b), you have to look to the organization’s values.

Josh: Ideally, the values are important. And remember, this is part of Disney. But one wonders if they could have seen this coming. Where were their values when they put the show on in the first place?

Melissa: I wasn’t a part of those discussions, but I’ll say that Barr was a risk on different levels, that they needed to go into business with in full awareness – and readiness.

Josh: Here’s a conversation I imagine happening right now at ABC:

Liberal values person: “See, I told you this would happen. What a disaster.”

Money-grubbing entertainment guy: “Sure, but we made $40 million this season. So it was worth it.”

Melissa: Not much of a conversation!

Josh: Here’s my takeaway from what you’ve been saying: If you partner with the devil, it’s even more important to have that crisis management plan ready, because the chances of disaster are much higher.

Melissa: Well, if you partner with the devil – disaster is inevitable!

I’ll add to your summary:

Define your lines and have process and strategy of response prepared for the event where those lines are crossed.

Josh: Perfect. Let’s hope anyone whose lines might be crossed is listening. And in the age of #MeToo, this could happen to any company.

Melissa: Agreed. And with high impact!

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