Media and Crisis Management
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Media and Crisis Management

Whose got your back ?- The Michael Richards debacle

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Crisis Management: Whose got your back ?- The Michael Richards debacleCrisis prevention

I used to find an occasional rerun of Seinfeld a good laugh at the end of a busy day. Not now. It’s not funny since actor Michael Richards’ – aka Kramer on the show– was videotaped spewing a venomous racist rant at African Americans attending his standup comedy performance. I saw his TV apology on Letterman, and read of his regret on Jesse Jackson’s radio show where Richards said, “He was in a place of humiliation.” But it’s difficult to un-ring this bell. How do you laugh at someone after seeing him pour out filth for minutes? It wasn’t a tongue slip.

Veteran comedian Harry Shearer cynically told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann he thought actor Mel Gibson would like having Richards distract attention from Gibson’s own alcohol-fueled tirade against Jews awhile back. I don’t think so. Entertainment media will find a way to link Mel and Michael. I’m about to do it.

This column began when I asked myself, “What was it within two wealthy smart entertainers that boiled up to feed such nastiness?” With both well beyond thirty, you can’t pin it on a young man’s runaway hormones. Was it embedded racism, self-hatred, the power of privilege, substance abuse, personal problems, rage? We’ll leave it to their therapists and crisis managers.

Furthermore, what do these Hollywood meltdowns have to do with our world, the business world? Having lived longer than I care to admit and seen a lot I’d like to forget, I believe most of us have a potential for self-destructive behavior. And to avoid our own implosions we desperately need others to watch our backs.

How about you? You’ve made mistakes. I know you have said something to someone, maybe an employee, a co-worker, surely a spouse or partner, that you regret. It may not have been ferociously hateful like Michael Richards (or maybe it was?) but I know you wish you could take it back. Perhaps in an emotional state due to stress or God knows what; you have made an awful decision. The decision may have hurt your company, employees, your family, or your reputation. I would bet that of all the people reading this column, more than half have done something significantly stupid as an adult. If you are fortunate, only you know of your mistake and it lingers like a silent scarlet letter. If not, others know of your failure and perhaps question your competency, judgment, or stability. If you’ve never stumbled like this, please bottle your magic formula and send me the recipe.

I once wrote about the stupidity of Michael Jackson and his sister Janet (after her Superbowl “exposure”) and said that they, and us, need people who can look us in the eye and say “No.” Those of us in business also need to surround ourselves with savvy people willing to protect us from ourselves. Since I believe most of us will “lose it” sometime, we need to build a strong team around us comprised of those not afraid to challenge us and say they think what we are doing is nuts! Or to say, “I think you owe John an apology.” Or, “I believe we need another opinion before we take that action.” Or, “You are treating me unfairly, please stop.”

“It is a team thing” is a fundamental principle in my presentations on crisis management. Having others backstop us makes it less likely that we will make a poor decision, overlook a significant factor, or go over the edge. I don’t know who backs up Michael Richards and Mel Gibson, but I have this feeling they either don’t exist or are weak. Who is really looking out for them professionally? And while we’re at it, who’s got your back?

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