Crisis Management: Rush Limbaugh/Sponsors – get it over with: Crisis response
What did conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and some of his sponsors have in common when the uproar over his sliming of an activist law student first flared? They violated the crisis management principle “get it over with!” If a reputation-damaging train’s barreling down the tracks it’s best to jump off the rails than endure the collision. Cut your losses.
First the sponsors. Some began condemning Limbaugh’s vitriol when the blowback started but tried to maintain their relationship. They began to realize that Limbaugh had lit a serious PR bonfire by attacking Sandra Fluke for two days as a slut and prostitute because she testified in favor of funding contraception. Now being scorched through social media the hesitant sponsors concluded, “We’re linked to Limbaugh, customers don’t like it, let’s disconnect.” Remaining sponsors, seeing “bad PR” written on their walls, bailed more quickly. Most suspended sponsorship. They’ll quietly slip back under the covers with Rush when the media/social klieg lights move to the next controversy.
As for the man behind the golden microphone, Mr. Limbaugh’s been sipping his own Kool-Aid too long. He’s apparently so accustomed to riling people with hot words that he appears, at least until now, blind to the difference between torching public figures or issues and violating the innocent. Ms. Fluke inserted herself into the public eye as a “civilian” not a “hired gun” accustomed to political mud fights. Rush’s determined trashing of her was orders of magnitude greater than what she deserved. In the tradition of “get it over with,” he too would have been better off genuinely apologizing to her directly, in person, before doing so through his website and radio show.
This too shall pass for Limbaugh and sponsors. They need each other and will reunite. Not so fast however for conservative political professionals long allied with Limbaugh. For some on the left, the Limbaugh/Fluke mess is now prima facie evidence that those on the right are anti-women.
Imagine how much more quickly this case might have subsided had Limbaugh embraced his mistake and gotten it over with by personally making amends. Perhaps, if he’d acted fast enough he might even have protected his sponsors. Perhaps not.
The larger lesson for business leaders is this. If you face an impending slide down a slippery slope of reputational trouble, do yourself a favor. Act rapidly to cut your losses before going over the cliff. Take the hit that you can control. That’s far better than snowballing into a free-fall that takes your reputation God-knows where.