If you've been paying attention to current events lately, then you're probably well aware that actor and comedian Bill Cosby is back in the news for another controversial reason, this one possibly the worst yet: Back in September, a biography about Cosby by biographer Mark Whitaker (Cosby: His Life and Times) was released, but while the almost 500 page book delved into some dark aspects of Cosby's life, including the murder of his son in 1997, anything that would have reflected poorly on Cosby himself was conspicuously absent, including his inflammatory comments about young, black Americans, and, worst of all, the 2006 lawsuit in which over a dozen women came forward to say Cosby had drugged and raped them.
The case quietly went away, and people mostly forgot about it, but thanks to the glaring omissions in Whitaker's biography and comedian Hannibal Buress, the allegations have resurfaced - and one new woman has come forward to claim she was drugged and raped years ago by Cosby.
Buress ignited an internet firestorm with his scathing bit about the decade-old allegations about Cosby while performing stand-up in Philadelphia a few weeks ago:
Said the comedian during the bit:
It’s even worse because Bill Cosby has the fuckin’ smuggest old black man persona that I hate,” Buress said. “He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the 80s! I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom!’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.
I guess I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns. I've done this bit on stage and people think I'm making it up.... when you leave here, google 'Bill Cosby rape.' That shit has more results than 'Hannibal Buress.'
The bit went viral, and social media exploded as people who had never known of - or had forgotten about - the awful skeletons in Cosby's closet were reminded that the comedian with the squeaky-clean persona on-screen has miraculously dodged some very, very nasty charges over the years.
But I don't want to talk about the charges, neither old or new. Do I think he drugged and raped those women? Yes. Yes, I do. But enough print and pixels have been devoted to covering the allegations ad nauseum, and frankly, with so much nastiness being directed toward women in media lately, it makes my skin crawl to think of it. There are other writers far more eloquent and thoughtful than me who have already covered the issue in a way I can't.
Instead, I'd like to turn our attention toward the public relations disaster that happened when the social media team in charge of Cosby's Twitter account inexplicably decided to invite people to make memes of the comedian with the ill-advised Twitter invitation, "Go ahead. Meme me!" and tag it #CosbyMeme.
It did not go well.
This guy said what anyone with half an ounce of common sense was thinking:
It got worse when Cosby, who has cancelled quite a few public appearances, made the odd decision to appear on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday with broadcaster Scott Simon. The result was an awkward, uncomfortable portion of an interview, filled with silent gaps when Cosby, rather than diffusing the issue, simply refused to speak.
I'm not sure what it says about my jadedness, but I wasn't surprised when the rape allegations resurfaced - nasty, horrific things like that have a way of sticking around and clinging to a person, like tar on a shoe no matter how often you scrape (just ask OJ Simpson).
The same way I wasn't surprised when it blew up in the New England Patriots' collective face when its social media team came up with an idea to thank fans for helping them be the first NFL team to reach one million followers on Twitter: auto-generating a customized tweet with that person's Twitter handle on the back of a jersey to anyone who responded to or retweeted this tweet form the Patriots official account:
But somehow, people that were hired specifically to work within social media apparently had no clue how social media works or that an auto-generate feature is a bad, bad idea when opened up to the general public, which is why this happened:
Really, how did they not see that coming?
Likewise, I found myself pinching my nose and sighing last week when, amidst the celebration of the historic landing of the Philae probe on gigantic Comet 67P, another internet firestorm started about the shirt that Rosetta mission project scientist Matt Taylor chose, stupidly, to wear on-camera when talking about the mission.
Yes, that's a shirt full of scantily-clad women making borderline pornstar poses. Dumb of him to wear it to a globally televised, professional press conference? Yes, absolutely. Out-of-touch of him to not understand how it might be received? Yes, absolutely. But it's unforgivable that not one person on the European Space Agency's PR team took one look at that shirt, and, understanding the issues with women and misogyny boiling in geek culture right now, went, "Hey, wait a minute. Maybe that's not the message we want to send. Let's wear something else." Taylor's job was to worry about the mission. It was the PR team's job to worry about how the scientists explaining the mission were portrayed to the world. In that, they absolutely dropped the ball.
It baffles me is just how bad PR and social media teams are at handling it when things like this happen, and I've found myself thinking about this for a while now. Constantly, while reading about the latest social media disaster, I find myself thinking, But...these are the exact sorts of situations you're being paid to prevent! How are you so bad at this?
Here at Moviepilot, for example, I meet with a few other colleagues involved in the editorial and publishing process every single morning. Part of that meeting is always spent discussing the angle we'd like to take with stories, but part of it is also spent on whether or not we should touch controversial subjects at all, and if we do, how to tread lightly about a sensitive subject. It's our job to foresee how something could be read wrong or go badly for us and our staff. And we're not public relations or social media experts; we simply realize this is part of the job, as common sense dictates.
Every week seems to bring some new snafu, whether it's a politician saying something very, very stupid, a comedian making a joke in poor taste, or some corporation's social media account making a facepalmingly bad tweet. When you look at it as a whole, it's shocking how seemingly clueless how many very smart people are when it comes to being aware of current events or hot button social issues - and which way public perception falls. There are some very, very good PR and social media teams out there (like our PR team at Moviepilot, for example, or how Marvel's social media team is always on point), but they are often overshadowed by the ones who are shockingly inept.
But maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps, instead of lamenting how awfully bad public relations and social media teams are at the basic functions of their jobs, I should be thanking their many, many faux pas as a blessing in disguise.
Just as we've become accustomed to privileged people doing terrible things, we've become even more accustomed to their money and position enabling them to buy their way out of a bad situation before the public ever finds out about it. Think of how often an entitled celebrity will get the judicial equivalent of a slap on the wrist for a crime for which we mere non-famous mortals would probably do jail time, and how often their transgressions get swept under the rug.
Likewise, there are so many instances of ingrained, institutionalized bigotry, whether sexism, racism, classism - pick your poison. It exists. But unless they've had firsthand experience with it, the average person might be completely unaware of it. And will often remain completely unaware until some Twitter account manager blunders or a PR team lets something slip through the cracks and suddenly, it's a trending topic on social media.
So perhaps, rather than laughing and making memes when some crack PR team or hapless social media intern takes a sensitive situation and makes it worse, we should be thanking them for drawing the attention of the public to important current events or deeper issues we might not otherwise have known about.
When a PR person hands the internet a lemon...at least we can use social media to turn it into lemonade. Right?