Three lessons for brands from Bill Cosby's fall from grace

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Bill Cosby.
Bill Cosby.

The man who once topped lists for public trust committed three basic errors in addressing a long-simmering scandal

"Bill Cosby is a rapist" was the infamous phrase spoken by comedian Hannibal Buress that sparked a media firestorm, forever tarnishing the legacy and reputation of one of America's most admired celebrities.

Cosby’s fall from grace started when a clip of Buress' Oct. 16 performance, during which he called Cosby a rapist, was uploaded to Philadelphia magazine’s website. The Young Turks, a YouTube channel with more than 1.8 million subscribers, quickly reposted the video, and BuzzFeed published its own story about the show. Twitter and other social media platforms did the rest, resulting in the implosion of Cosby's reputation and career.

Just weeks after the story went viral, Cosby launched a media tour to promote his latest projects, including an art collection he donated to the Smithsonian Institution. During an interview with the Associated Press, Cosby refused to answer questions about the allegations when asked by the reporter.

After he thought the cameras stopped, Cosby tried to suppress parts of the interview by asking for written proof that it would not be aired. When the reporter said no, Cosby replied, "I think if you consider yourself to be serious it won’t appear anywhere. I would appreciate it if it was scuttled." As more women came forward, AP decided to run the entire interview.

In November, Cosby asked his Twitter followers to create comical memes about him. What followed were thousands of memes about Cosby’s rape and sexual assault allegations, carrying the hashtag #CosbyMeme. This campaign, along with a subsequent flood of stories encouraged more women to come forward about their experiences with the 77-year-old comedian.

Since then, Cosby’s star has fallen fast. Netflix indefinitely delayed the release of a Cosby stand-up special, NBC ceased development of a sitcom starring Cosby, and TV Land stopped airing reruns of The Cosby Show. Appearances on the Late Show and The Queen Latifah Show were also cancelled.

Even the University of Massachusetts, where Cosby earned his master's and doctorate degrees, asked him to resign as an honorary co-chair of its Amherst campus’ capital campaign. At one time, Cosby was the third-most-trusted celebrity, but he now ranks at 2,645, according to Omnicom Group’s The Marketing Arm.

How can brands learn from Cosby’s quick demise?

Be transparent. Nearly 20 women have come forward, and Cosby has yet to tell his side of the story. Celebrities that want to survive a scandal must be completely honest and straightforward. When David Letterman was accused of having multiple affairs with female staffers in 2009, he came clean on his late-night talk show and followed it up with an interview with Oprah Winfrey, stopping the scandal in its tracks.

Be proactive. Although Cosby had three decades to address rape allegations that date back to the 1970s, he did not. And like Cosby, brands often ignore burning issues until they become full-blown crises. But by then, the damage to their reputation is done. Proactive brands "kill the monster while it’s small" and avoid scandals in the first place.

Be authentic. Consumers crave authenticity in brands the same way they do in celebrities. A research study by Cohn & Wolfe found that 91 percent of consumers prefer brands that are honest over a product’s utility. Brands that admit to their flaws, don't pretend to be perfect, and strive to be better are able to forge stronger bonds with their customers. Brands that are disingenuous are more vulnerable to scandal and customer attrition. If not Cosby, Tiger Woods sure taught us that lesson.

Ronald Anderson works for Strategic Vantage Marketing & Public Relations and is a board member for the Black Public Relations Society of Atlanta.

This article first appeared on prweek.com.

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