I think we’re all sick of this Duck Dynasty controversy, and would rather not read another word on the subject. And yet, the story has legs. Just today, Jesse Jackson weighed in, triggering yet another round of debate on the matter.
At this point, I’m so fed up with the cheap shots and weak debate surrounding the whole controversy that I can’t help myself. (Perhaps it was Sarah Palin admitting to Fox News that she hadn’t even read what Phil Robertson had said — and yet had a strong opinion on the subject — that finally boiled my blood to the point that I had to weigh in.)
Deadline wrote the other day that TV execs are trashing A&E for making a “rookie mistake” in how it handled Phil Robertson and his disgusting comments to GQ. But I disagree. They didn’t make a rookie mistake — they simply used an old playbook.
This is how it used to be done when one of your stars made a terribly racist, sexist or homophobic remark while representing your network or show. You suspended them, or you even parted ways with them. Howard Cosell, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, and many others saw their careers impacted after they made public comments that were just plain offensive.
But that was then.
Now, there’s an outrage machine that peddles in firing up its base with trivial matters that are repackaged as an affront on their entire being. They've somehow convinced themselves that rich, white men are the most oppressed people in the country and that Christians are being persecuted in the United States (never mind the irony that George W. Bush's Iraq war actually led to real, bona fide persecution of Christians in that country. Irony is not their strong suit.) It's this victim mentality that fuels a lot of cable news and talk radio and is keeping the Duck Dynasty story alive.
Up is down and down is up. Using this topsy-turvy logic, it’s fine that the Dixie Chicks were banished by Clear Channel from country radio (with stations sponsoring mass burnings of Dixie chicks music!) for criticizing the president. Or that Martin Bashir, Alec Baldwin and Bill Maher should lose their jobs for saying tasteless, controversial or just wrong things. But the second Phil Robertson said something disgusting about gays and African Americans, it became a freedom of speech issue.
We live in a world of double standards and apparently some people aren't supposed to be held responsible for their statements. Never mind that A&E put Robertson on "hiatus" even though it wasn’t even filming him at the moment. And that it’s still airing the show’s upcoming new season, featuring Robertson, uncut. The notion of putting Robertson in time-out fired up his fans and turned him into a hero.
So since logic no longer exists, A&E needed to utilize a new PR plan of action, one that didn’t make Phil Robertson a martyr. Here’s what they should have done… and perhaps what all media companies should do in similar circumstances going forward:
1. In releasing an apology, make it clear that you’re in business with the Robertsons while disagreeing with their statements. And be clear, don’t dance around the issue: "As we’ve grown to know and love the Robertson family, we’ve also come to see that, yes, the family holds some views that we strongly disagree with. Duck Dynasty, however, is not about the Robertsons’ abhorrent views on the GLBT or African American communities, but focuses on their love of family. That will continue. In the spirit of "hate the sin, love the sinner," while we continue to enjoy a fruitful, successful and positive relationship with the Robertsons, we disagree with Phil Robertson’s crass, dirty and ugly comments.”
2. This one is key: "We have donated $50,000 in Phil Robertson’s name to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, to help further the message of tolerance and love, particularly during this holiday season. We hope that in doing so, Phil will come to understand that his words come with consequences, and help perpetuate a culture of violence and fear, particularly among teens and young adults struggling to fit in a world where hate speech and actions is sometimes still accepted and applauded. Further, we would welcome and encourage Phil to match our donation and perhaps even remind his fans and viewers that there’s an alternative to hate, and it can be found in understand, compassion and acceptance."
3. "A&E has also agreed to donate a portion of its profits from Duck Dynasty merchandise sales this holiday season to a variety of nonprofit organizations, including the United Negro College Fund, that also forward the cause of compassion, understanding and helping others."
4. "Also, during our upcoming Duck Dynasty marathon and new season, A&E will run a variety of public service announcements to help spread the message of love, tolerance and understanding of all God’s people. We welcome the Robertsons to appear in some of these spots.”
By the way, it’s not too late for A&E to take this strategy and apply it when it comes time to resume filming, with Phil Robertson still in the mix. This strategy basically gives A&E an opportunity to distance itself from the Robertsons, while not turning them into heroes. You see what I did here? I flipped the script. In this case, A&E isn't punishing Phil Robertson -- it's shaming him instead. "We're going to do what's right. You can either join us, or don't." It puts the onus on the family: We’re giving you the opportunity to preach compassion and humanity. Will you take this opportunity? A $50,000 donation is a drop in the bucket for a multi-millionaire. If you don't, the story focuses on that instead. Yeah, it’s a passive aggressive approach… but this may be the only way to handle such a situation in this new world order.