When the sh*t hits the fan

by emily on March 19, 2012

In this age of entrepreneurship, small business owners (yes, that means YOU dear actor) must work harder than ever to build a strong reputation and foster trust with an audience.  Whether your audience be entertainment industry professionals, consumers of your web content, readers of your blog or social media channels, customers or clients of a side business.  Trust, integrity, and reputation are everything.

A company’s profitability can live and die by review sites.  Web videos like “Sh*t Girls Say” go viral in a day thanks to social media share functions.

(I secretly dream of creating a review site for service providers to rate and review their clients.  Are you listening Yelp?  Call me.)

In the words of Warren Buffet,

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Which brings me to the timely five-minute reputation destroying story of Mike Daisy and This American Life.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about it.  And just in case you’re pulling a Geico commercial cave-man, here’s a quick update to get you up to speed:

  • Mike Daisey’s acclaimed one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” deals with harsh and troubling conditions in a factory in China making Apple products.
  • Daisey presents the show as “non-fiction.”
  • This American Life publishes an excerpt of Daisey’s show, presenting it as factual.
  • Another reporter from This American Life proves many of Daisey’s “facts” never happened.
  • Daisey admits to This American Life he lied.
  • This American Life retracts it’s story on Mike Daisey.
  • Mike Daisey reputation is in deep sh*t.

(Read both the TAL retraction and confrontation of Mike Daisey)

It is unfortunate.  Clearly Daisey’s intentions were good.  He wanted to bring widespread attention to an important issue.  But his passion to get people to care clouded his judgment, leading him to flat out lie, and now he’s paying the price.  If he had simply said his show was, “inspired by actual events” rather than “this really happened to me” there would be no problem whatsoever.

The focus seems to be on Daisey Daisey Daisey and what he did wrong.  Why is no one talking about This American Life’s Ira Glass and everything he did right?

Maybe we are used to people doing shitty things and then handling them in a shitty way.  From child molestation to sexting scandals to ponzi schemes, we are surrounded by liars, schemers, cheaters and thieves.  It’s more compelling to focus on the drama, the deceit and the wrong doing.

But why not let the take-away from this cautionary tale include some amazing steps a company took to keep their reputation intact?

You KNOW some serious sh*t hit the fan over at the This American Life offices when all of this was going down.  But they managed to handle a bad situation with grace. This whole incident is a great lesson on what to do when the sh*t hits the fan (whereas Mike Daisey’s choices feel like the handbook of what NOT to do – hedge, dodge, justify, rationalize, and apologize only as a last resort).

Here are some of the principles TAL used that would make any apology feel complete (whether you’ve messed up personally or professionally):

Take Responsibility

You can’t simultaneously apologize and blame someone else.  If you know you did it, own up to it, as uncomfortable as that is.  In Glass’s retraction statement he clearly states, “…this was our mistake.”

Make the first move

TAL brought this story to their audience.  They weren’t caught or the subject of an expose.  When they realized they had made a mistake, they immediately took steps to right the wrong.  So many public figures apologize only once they get caught.  You know what that kind of apology feels like?  “I’m sorry you caught me.  Because if I had gotten away with it, I’d still be doing it.”

It’s much easier to repair your reputation when you make the first move to correct your mistakes.

Don’t sugarcoat it

However bad it is, let it be.  Don’t try to sugarcoat things, it will only make it worse.  Ira Glass also states in his retraction letter, “Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn’t excuse the fact that we never should’ve put this on the air.”

Stick to the facts

Don’t let your emotions convince you to act all crazy and escalate an already bad situation.  You KNOW Ira Glass must’ve been upset when he confronts Daisey during this interview.  He never raises his voice, and sticks to the facts.

Come back to the real issue

Glass does this brilliantly.  After the apology and the confrontation of Daisey, Glass brings the focus back to the real issue – the dangerous conditions of Apple’s supplier factories in China.

I am impressed with Ira Glass.  In fact, I kinda have a crush on him now.  The This American Life team handled themselves well.  Mike Daisey didn’t.  And the blogosphere is on fire with the damage it has done to his reputation, his message and the integrity of his show.  He could learn a lot from Ira Glass.  I know I have!

Leave a comment.  What do you think about Mike Daisey and This American Life? Who’s reputation is still intact and why?  How have you handled a sh*t-hits-fan moment with integrity?

A note on comments – Keep it ON TOPIC.  Keep it respectful and intelligent.  Any comment that does not adhere to these two very simple requests will be deleted.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Cris D'Annunzio March 19, 2012 at 11:24 pm

You made an interesting observation, Emily: EVERYONE is talking about Daisey. This beckons the question: is any publicity good publicity. There is no doubt that of the many solo performers around today that Mr. Daisey is one of the better known. Still, as anyone running a business (as you do) will tell you, you must always be prospecting for new clients. Mr. Daisey’s business IS his solo performance. He tours the world and makes a living by performing his brand of solo show. Though many people in the industry knew of Mr. Daisey before this story broke, he was hardly considered a household name. I have no qualms about an artist taking liberties with the truth. However, Mr. Daisey posits himself as a non-fiction performer. It is not that he stretched the truth or interpreted it differently – he lied. This is not consistent with the proposition in which we have come to regard Mr. Daisey. But consider this: how many businesses engage in misleading advertising or misrepresent what their product can do? I am not condoning Mr. Daisey’s actions, but rather questioning his intentions. What is not known is if this was done in a James Frey-like manner to create sensationalism and thus, more buzz about Mike Daisey or if it was all an intentional PR stunt. Worse, perhaps, is that it is simply a matter of someone trying to pass off an inferior product as something special – and hoping to get away with it. Either way, Mike Daisey is certainly better known now. It remains to be seen what impact this will have on his business – and his product.

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Suzanne DuCharme March 20, 2012 at 12:25 am

Daisy’s behaviour is kind of hard to fathom. After we learned that Sybill really didn’t have hundreds of personalities and that Alex Hailey’s “Roots” was total fiction, you’d think that people would stop doing this. I guess the promise of fame and fortune is just too seductive.

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