The Imus brand implosion

April 13, 2007

How did the Don Imus situation get so out of control?

1. Imus should have caught himself and apologized immediately on the air. Instead, he dismissively said people needed to “relax about his idiot comments meant to be amusing.” This added fuel to the fire. Name-calling politicians and celebrities is one thing, picking on sympathetic college basketball players is another. He should have understood the difference.

2. Video-taping the show. What propelled the scandal into orbit was seeing Don Imus saying the words over and over again on television and the internet. I don’t think just the audio would have had the same impact. His performance is made for radio; he doesn’t have the right expressions for television. On TV he looks like a cold, mean, old, rich, elitist white man.

3. Trying to be a high-minded political commentator as well as a shock jock spewing locker-room humor. Where is the line? Hard to judge when you are trying to be two different things. Plus his “I’m-better-than-you” image, makes forgiving him more difficult.

4. His first stop on the apology tour should have been to the Rutgers campus. He should have run right over there and been at their press conference.

5. Going on Sharpton’s show hurt his case. With the Reverend taunting and antagonizing him, Imus understandably cracked and came off as confrontational. The show just produced more unflattering clips for the media to run. He said he was stupid more times than he said he was sorry about hurting the basketball players feeling.

6. Too bad Don wasn’t drinking. A rush to rehab would have given everyone a timeout to let the story die down. It would also have given CBS more time to think about it. The two-week suspension was a good idea.

7. Without someone in charge at CBS Radio, executives were left scrambling to deal with the crisis and I believe they prematurely fired Imus. They had already given him a two-week suspension. They should have taken the time to think through the issues and better gage the public and advertiser outrage. Firing him was always an option; there was no need to rush the decision. Having him come back and fail was also an option. In some ways Imus now looks like the victim and CBS Radio looks like the bad guys. If the Rutgers basketball team could forgive him and not want him to lose his job, why couldn’t CBS wait a few weeks to make their decision?

Lessons learned:

1. A well-oiled outrage machine can bring someone down. Sharpton and Jackson are the best. They have had a lot of practice and have obviously gotten really good at taking advantage of a news story to push their agenda. Mel Gibson, Isaiah Washington and Rosie O’Donnell weren’t taken down because the Jewish, Gay and Asian outrage machines are not as well developed. I can’t think of any Sharpton-like leaders of these groups.

2. Know your brand and watch what you say in relation to what you stand for. If you don’t, there will be negative consequences to your actions. Even if you don’t get fired, the negative PR firestorm can be terribly damaging. Mel Gibson will come back but there will always be a stain on his record.

3. Terrestrial radio could be in trouble. The talk-radio genre is filled with ranting, raving and name calling. If more of the big radio stars are kicked off or flee to satellite radio, the future looks bleak for the terrestrial folks.

4. Playing the “I’m-better-than-you” role is dangerous. Having some self deprecation is always better and makes people like you and more easily forgive you. Think Howard Stern or Jon Stewart. Don Imus and Martha Stewart come off as believing they are above it all and beyond reproach.

An airline analogy. The Imus situation is like when an airline has a crash due to pilot error. There is immediate panic and protest. No one wants to fly. But long term airline brands survive, because on most days, most flights land safety. And over time we forget about the bad and remember the good. Unless you crash a plane everyday.

I appeared on CNN Headline Prime News on Wednesday, April 11 and will appear tonight, Friday April 13 to discuss brand Imus again. Tune in to CNN Headline at 6 pm EST.