Ellen: What Went Wrong from a Public Relations Expert

One downfall many of us didn’t expect to see in 2020 was Ellen DeGeneres. DeGeneres and her seemingly happy-go-lucky daytime show that preaches kindness, “Ellen”, have been rocked by allegations of a “toxic work environment” — plagued by bullying, racism, and sexual misconduct. The workplace accusations have been exacerbated by negative encounters with former guests, celebrities, and fellow comedians who have said DeGeneres is not as kind as she seems. Ellen’s slow and lack-luster response has worsened the problem, leaving her reputation as “Queen of Nice” in shambles and her career in the balance.

What has happened to Ellen — both the accusations themselves and the response — is a cautionary tale in public relations and crisis management.

First, it is essential to understand that when you build a brand on the back of an individual, everything that person does in and out of the spotlight will be scrutinized. Ellen’s brand is Ellen. She has built an empire on her leadership, advocacy, and personality. Her daytime show cornered the niche on feel-good stories, supporting everyday heroes, and donating to those in need. It was a shining beacon of “nice” — and Ellen herself was a vocal advocate of being kind to everyone. So, when accusations began to circulate on the internet that Ellen was “notoriously one of the meanest people in Hollywood” — people started to take notice. Ellen’s primary mistake here, of course, was not practicing what she preached. Her callous and aloof behavior when the red light was turned off threatened to dismantle her public image.

As public relations experts, we caution clients about the constant threat of a crisis. Those who build a brand around  a singular entity – be it a celebrity, forward-facing CEO, or public company representative – need to be aware that personal choices and behaviors affect the brand as a whole.

Next, Ellen failed to adequately respond to the accusations. A poorly timed and/or poorly executed response to a scandal typically exacerbates the issue — and unfortunately, this is precisely what Ellen did.

Her response was slow. Rumors of her unkindness began circulating on social media in March. In mid-July, Buzzfeed published a workplace exposé that lifted the lid and brought legitimacy to the stories. Ellen did not issue a response until July 31. Her response was also viewed as insincere. In Ellen’s letter to her staff, she claimed that she wanted the show to be a place of happiness and respect and that she was “disappointed to learn this has not been the case.” While her words claimed she accepted responsibility for the mistakes, the letter also deflected blame to senior producers and failed to address the accusations lodged directly against her.

In crisis management, it is essential to assess the severity of the issue, target who has been affected, and — while often difficult — recognize when you have personally contributed to the problem. With a meaningful, genuine response, you can mend broken pieces and protect your brand. And this is where an outsider’s perspective — like the help of a public relations firm — is invaluable. We objectively assess the problem, help issue quick and appropriate responses, and help win back trust as you weather the storm.

Ellen’s reputation is bruised. While she recently fired three of the producers who were named by former staffers as harassers, as the brand, she continues to carry the weight of this problem. She needs to listen to her staff’s concerns, and respond with sincere, individual apologies, concessions, and personnel training. She also owes the public an explanation and needs to make a concerted effort to win back their trust — without it, she may never get back what she has lost.

Mollie Young

Author Mollie Young

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