Ellen DeGeneres misstepped with “non-apology apology,” says crisis PR expert. (Photo: Getty Images)
Ellen DeGeneres’s PR nightmare continues amid more allegations of a toxic workplace at the Ellen DeGeneres Show. While the beloved television host took “responsibility” following reports of misconduct by senior staffers, a new report ties her more directly to what a former producer described as a “culture of fear.” Hedda Muskat is the first person to go on the record, claiming to The Wrap that DeGeneres knew about abuses on her set. It’s why one crisis public relations expert thinks the Emmy winner’s brand has been permanently “damaged.”
“Ellen has been damaged. Her brand has lost her luster and will never be the same. If more allegations arise or more celebrities come forward, she could be totally culturally ‘cancelled,’” David E. Johnson, CEO of public relations and branding agency Strategic Vision PR Group, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “The damage already has been great and seems to be increasing.”
DeGeneres broke her silence last week after a string of unflattering reports detailing a workplace culture supposedly filled with racism, harassment and intimidation. The daytime host sent an email to her staff addressing the allegations, which was then leaked to multiple media outlets. Johnson — who specializes in crisis communication — called it a “good” PR strategy, but notes “the execution was flawed” in how she got the apology out.
“It was an attempt to try to squash the story, but it failed dismally,” he explains. “What I mean by that is during a crisis, the first thing you should do is get in front of it and take responsibility. Yet Ellen, while apologizing, seemed in the apology to shift blame to senior management for what happened.”
Johnson, who has over 20 years of experience in the industry, adds, “Her crisis strategy was too little too late.”
In the letter, DeGeneres took “responsibility” as her “name is on the show,” but distanced herself from misconduct allegations: “Alongside Warner Bros., we immediately began an internal investigation and we are taking steps, together, to correct the issues. As we’ve grown exponentially, I’ve not been able to stay on top of everything and relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I’d want them done. Clearly some didn’t. That will now change and I’m committed to ensuring this does not happen again.”
Johnson believes by not addressing the reports head-on in a public statement earlier, it “led to an even greater backlash as we saw celebrities take to social media to dispute her take. It came across in many ways as a non-apology apology.”
After the email made headlines, Everybody Loves Raymond star Brad Garrett tweeted “Sorry but it comes from the top @TheEllenShow.” He claimed to know people who have been treated “horribly” by DeGeneres, and that the behavior is “common knowledge.” Actress Lea Thompson added, “True story. It is.” Johnson says the fact that people in the entertainment industry are coming forward to corroborate mistreatment reports is “extremely damaging to her brand.”
“In this climate, claiming that you are unaware is not a valid excuse,” he shares. “What is most damaging is that these allegations go against the persona and brand that Ellen has carefully developed over the years. And that is the biggest problem for Ellen. When allegations come that go against your brand identity the damage is immense. One major sign of how damaging this has been is the great silence from many celebrities in defending Ellen.”
Portia de Rossi, Scooter Braun and Brandi Carlile are a few stars who have spoken out in support of DeGeneres. However, many notable figures — like guests and “friends” of the show Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Lopez and Justin Timberlake — have kept quiet, something polo player Nacho Figueras highlighted in his Instagram post praising the host. Fans created a campaign #IStandWithEllen, which Johnson says might help depending on what else comes out about her culpability.
“It can help Ellen unless staffers begin to come out and say she knew which we are seeing in the case of Hedda Muskat, the former producer who said Ellen created a climate of fear,” he continues. “It is impossible to overcome that and these latest allegations will drown out Ellen’s supporters.”
Another thing working against DeGeneres, Johnson believes, is the slow news cycle amid the pandemic: “The fact that this is playing out now during the dog days of summer a traditional slow news cycle means that this is getting even more coverage than it usually would.”
If he were advising DeGeneres, he’d have her address all allegations “in a hard hitting interview.”
“In the interview, I would have her apologize again and also lay out her strategy for moving forward, noting what changes are being made,” he shares. “I would also have major celebrities come forward to defend her. And then after that, I would advise silence.”
Johnson thinks the show will go on — for now.
“I expect it will limp forward, but Warner Bros. will look to transition her out within the next year,” he speculates. “I also do not believe it will be the destination show that it has been for years.”
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