Sexual Harassment and Assault—The Perpetual PR Crisis

(Photos: AP)

Sexual harassment and assault charges against some of the most powerful men in media, politics and business have changed discourse on these topics. With new revelations coming at a remarkably steady rate, crushing the careers of seemingly unassailable figures, we are witness to a new phenomenon: the perpetual PR crisis.

The roots of this perpetual PR crisis are in other long-term news stories that have generated massive media interest with their high-profile players and strings of disclosures—Watergate, the OJ Simpson murder trial, the Mueller special counsel investigation. The differentiator is how this crisis engulfs unconnected parties. The throughline is the uncanny similarity between reports of abusive behavior.

Many of those accused have admitted misdeeds; however, denials, avoidance, and/or disagreements about the most serious accusations, including rape, have punctuated statements of contrition. Critics have called US Senator Al Franken’s apologies vague. Actor Kevin Spacey worsened his position by combining his apology with a coming-out statement. “Today” anchor Matt Lauer acceded to “enough truth” in the accusations against him.

Employers have moved swiftly, firing or suspending the accused. While such prompt action is generally in accordance with best PR practices, it remains uncertain if employers will shield their reputations amid questions about sexual harassment and assault previously tolerated under their watches. Politicians accused of sexual misconduct have enjoyed a buffer since their employment rests with election cycles or discipline by their colleagues—infrequent events. President Donald Trump, Rep. John Conyers, and senate candidate Roy Moore have all denied allegations against them.

The current call against sexual harassment and assault—crystalized in the #metoo movement—has been bottom up, with the victimized and outraged finding voice and leverage in social and traditional media. Comedian Hannibal Buress called Bill Cosby a rapist in a clip that was widely viewed in social media, redrawing attention to the star’s 2006 settlement with Andrea Constand. In turn, Cosby faced decades-worth of new sex crime accusations and stood trial in the Constand matter. Susan Fowler, a former software engineer at Uber, blogged about sexual misconduct at the company, content that went viral and led to the removal of founder Travis Kalanick as CEO. Investigative journalism, a mainstay of traditional news media, made the case against Harvey Weinstein.

Public relations professionals must be neither helpless nor complicit during the perpetual PR crisis. We must cope with the insatiable appetite for scandal as audience bloodsport and noble crusade have become inseparable. We must ensure apologies are complete and unequivocal. We must push back against secret settlements with accusers as such coverup intensifies future exposure. We must champion institutional cultures based on truth, fairness and safety. Impossible? Naive? Then let the dominos keep falling.


Rep. John Conyers resigns.

Time name the “silence breakers” of the #metoo movement the “Person of the Year.”

In a follow-up piece entitled “Weinstein’s Complicity Machine,” The New York Times reports people and actions that contributed to Harvey Weinstein’s process of sexual misconduct and coverup.

Six women file suit against Harvey Weinstein, claiming coverups of sexual misconduct constitute racketeering.

A group of US Senate Democrats call on Sen. Al Franken to resign.

Sen. Al Franken announces resignation.

About Jason William Karpf

Author, Professor, Nonprofit Pro, Four-Time Jeopardy Champ
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