Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean and Muhammad Ali, iconic athletes who did their PR, said, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.” They were paraphrasing the father of free verse, Walt Whitman, who said, “If you done it, it ain’t bragging.” To this unlikely trio we add Ellen DeGeneres, comedian, actor and talk-show host.
One of Ellen’s brand phrases is “Be Kind.” Is Ellen kind or is she bragging? Hold that thought.
During the pandemic, Ellen and her show staff have made news.
For example, Ellen complained that quarantining at her home was like being in prison. A celebrity whining inside her palatial home falls flat when people are losing their jobs and getting COVID-19. Kind Ellen never apologized. .
Ellen also took heat for what was seen as an ineffective and insensitive tweet following the killing of George Floyd May 25. In addition to failing to mention Black people, one phrase in the tweet shook the zeitgeist: “For things to change, things must change.”
can’t stop thinking about Ellen tweeting “For things to change, things must change” it’s just so powerful
— Megh Wright (@megh_wright) May 31, 2020
Dissension in the Ranks
The biggest stories, which have spiraled into a moderate PR crisis, stem from alleged dissension in the ranks. After several reports in the Hollywood trades, BuzzFeed's Krystie Lee Yandoli wrote an exposé July 16. It was a beauty.
She reports that at least 10 current and former Ellen staffers allege a toxic culture at the show. A former staffer claims repeated racist acts convinced her to leave. Others allege intimidation against staff preserves Ellen's kind reputation.
Seizing a page from Steve Harvey’s employee relations handbook, several Ellen staffers claim their managers instructed them not to speak to DeGeneres when they saw her around the office.
Previous to the BuzzFeed article, but included in it, were allegations, reported first in Variety, that communication to staff around employment during the pandemic was sparse. During the pandemic, a non-union crew allegedly filmed the show at Ellen’s prison, er, house.
One day after the BuzzFeed article, July 17, the show’s three executive producers issued a statement. They took all the heat and apologized. "For the record, the day to day responsibility of the Ellen show is completely on us. We take all of this very seriously and we realize, as many in the world are learning, that we need to do better, are committed to do better, and we will do better.” Ellen was blameless, and silent.
Ten days later, Variety reported Warner Bros. Television initiated an internal investigation, citing sources. The previous week, the story said, Ellen employees received a memo about it, which included Warner Bros. personnel and an independent party. An investigation is a standard crisis tactic. Failing to be transparent about an investigation generally is seen as poor crisis management.
Yesterday, several things happened in the Ellen saga: Warner Bros. said the internal investigation showed some allegations were true; Ellen sent what appeared to be a lawyer-written apology that bordered on a non-apology apology to employees; and BuzzFeed published another Ellen-related article.
The article alleges a litany of executive producers' sexual inappropriateness. Again, Ellen, who runs the show, allegedly had nothing to do with this and had no knowledge of it. Several of the exec producers named in the story issued denials.
Lost in Translation
Warner Bros. said, “We are disappointed that the primary findings of the investigation indicated some deficiencies related to the show’s day-to-day management.” Moreover, “several staffing changes” are ahead. (Translation from corporate legalese: Yup, there's a problem here, and heads likely will roll.)
In addition, the show will take “appropriate measures” to address issues. “Warner Bros. and Ellen DeGeneres are all committed to ensuring a workplace based on respect and inclusion.” (You'd think that sort of workplace is a given at a show known for its kind boss. In addition, this is 2020. Such a workplace is supposed to be standard.)
Several media outlets obtained Ellen’s apology to employees. We excerpt its 400+ words below.
The Apology Letter
“Hey everybody—it’s Ellen.” (Comment: Glad that's out of the way. Wonder if the lawyers fought her on it?)
“On day one of our show, I told everyone in our first meeting that The Ellen DeGeneres Show would be a place of happiness—no one would ever raise their voice, and everyone would be treated with respect. Obviously, something changed, and I am disappointed to learn that this has not been the case. And for that, I am sorry.”
(Comment: Good. Ellen apologizes quickly. She could have adopted a kinder, more personal tone, considering there were victims.)
“My name is on the show and everything we do and I take responsibility for that.”
(Comment: Ellen takes responsibility for "everything." That's good.)
“Alongside Warner Bros, we immediately began an internal investigation and we are taking steps, together, to correct the issues.
(Comment: Transparency. Finally. And, yes, we have confirmation: There is an investigation. Please provide details.)
“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.”
(Comment: Ellen can’t be everywhere, yet she fails to accept responsibility. It’s their fault, she says of unnamed staff.
Can Ellen be kind and clueless? Yes. There's a lot of ignorance at the top. Who hasn't had a clueless boss? Some of these bosses even insist that their shops are happy places. With Ellen, though, as noted above, when your motto is "be kind," you're setting a high standard. Ellen should know what is happening inside her show.
Similarly, Ellen writes she is committed to “ensuring this does not happen again.” How will you make sure? Details, details, please.)
"I’m also learning that people who work with me and for me are speaking on my behalf and misrepresenting who I am and that has to stop.” (Comment: Huh? So, wait, Ellen is not only kind, now she will be everywhere. Send in the clones.)
“As someone who was judged and nearly lost everything for just being who I am, I truly understand and have deep compassion for those being looked at differently, or treated unfairly, not equal, or – worse – disregarded. To think that any one of you felt that way is awful to me.” (Comment: Good sentiment, though she's trying to score sympathy points. Harsh critics would call this deflecting. A much better tactic: Say, ‘It’s my show and I’m sorry.’)
“It’s been way too long, but we’re finally having conversations about fairness and justice.” (Comment: Why has it taken Ellen–who is kind and deeply compassionate–so long to address fairness and justice at her shop? Same question for Warner Bros. Could it be because Ellen's show is a cash cow? Best not to rock the boat of a show with 61 daytime Emmys and whose host makes $450,000,000 a year.)
“We all have to be more mindful about the way our words and actions affect others, and I’m glad the issues at our show were brought to my attention.” (Comment: This is deflection. And, Ellen, unless you’re telepathic, staff need access to you, so they say what’s on their mind.)
Doing My Part
“I promise to do my part in continuing to push myself and everyone around me to learn and grow. It’s important to me and to Warner Bros. that everyone who has something to say can speak up and feels safe doing so.” (Comment: Fine. Still, a more effective note would include details of what Ellen and Warner Bros. plan to do now.)
“An apology is only the first step in reconciliation and requires action behind it,” says Eric Yaverbaum, CEO, Ericho Communications. “It will be critical to take explicit steps to correct issues," he adds.
Changed behavior is the best apology. A lot of what happens next is up to Ellen. There's also a wildcard: whether or not her peers come forward with other stories about her kindness.
— Brad Garrett (@RealBradGarrett) July 31, 2020
[Update: Sunday, August 2, 2020, 1:30pm ET: This story is moving rapidly. There were reports that Ellen is considering leaving and stories denying that. What ultimately may play a large role here is yet another actor's allegations. Actor Leah Thompson agreed with Garrett's assessment of Ellen's kindness.
True story. It is.
— Lea Thompson (@LeaKThompson) July 31, 2020
Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS and Crisis Insider. Follow him: @skarenstein