Neil Foote, President & Founder, Foote Communications
Over the past couple weeks, we’ve seen a disastrous publicity stunt gone wrong. A hate crime turned out to be an alleged hoax. A black man was called out by a black police chief. A black gay man has become the punch line in a terrible joke. In a world where fake news and alternative facts are the favorite phrases of our nation’s president, the Jussie Smollett story has exemplified the worst-case scenario of exploiting the heightened emotions in this country circling around hate, racism, bigotry, prejudice and social injustice.
The tragedy here is that Smollett’s goal to call attention to hatred against gay black men is interlaced with a narrative where we have public officials apologizing for black-face pictures in high school and college yearbooks. Major brands, like Prada and Gucci, and singer Katy Perry are in crisis management mode as they apologize for selling products that were blatantly insensitive.
On Thursday, Chicago law enforcement has laid out a damaging series of events that reconstructs a calculated and intentional act by an actor of a popular TV show. We’ll learn more in the days and weeks ahead, but among the many lessons to be learned here: Truth and transparency is critical to managing an emotionally charged situation. Will we ever know why Jussie Smollett really did what he did? Perhaps not. Have Chicago law enforcement gathered an indisputable number of facts to convict this attention-starved actor of a felony charge of filing a false police report? Based on the press conference, there’s enough evidence to make you wonder how Smollett will defend his innocence.
The harsh reality is that anyone or any company trying to create a series of facts or events to get attention is walking down a dangerous road. At stake, if and when the truth comes out, is a loss of credibility, a loss of sales, and a long road back to consumer acceptance. We live in a world where there are so many more creative ways to get attention, increase sales and improve your brand acceptance- or get a raise.
Perhaps what we’ve learned is that Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson 1) did not let his race get in the way of doing his job; and 2) clearly and firmly detailed the intensive investigation that his officers did to reconstruct the events of the past month. If you think of Johnson as the CEO of a company facing a horrific image problem, he offered a textbook example of how you can dispel the doubters when you confidently share the details and engage all key members of your team to lay out the facts.
We haven’t heard the end of this story. What we have learned is that we can’t let this incident minimize prejudice based on race or gender. We can’t allow lead individuals or companies try to use ill-conceived plans to increase sales or market share.
About the Author: Neil Foote is a veteran journalist and media executive. He draws from his experience at the Miami Herald, Washington Post, Belo Corporation and Tom Joyner’s Reach Media. He also teaches digital and social media for journalists, media management and business journalism at the University of North Texas’ Frank W. & Sue Mayborn School of Journalism and runs Foote Communications, a media consulting firm. The native of Brooklyn, NY also is president of the board for the National Black Public Relations Society and founder of PoliticsInColor.com