Was Saturday Night Live’s Apology Skit Enough?

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on November 4, 2013 – 9:03 pm

Recently, Saturday Night Live faced criticism that the cast lacks diversity, specifically for its absence of black women. Kenan Thompson, one of the show’s three minority actors, announced he would no longer cross-dress to play characters like Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg.

There has not been a black female SNL cast member since 2007. To put that in perspective, that means there has not been a permanent cast member on the show during the entire Obama presidency to play Mrs. Obama.

 

Actress Kerry Washington plays Michelle Obama on Saturday Night Live, November 2, 2013

 

In a sharply critical article last week, The New York Times noticed the dearth of black women on the show:

“Let me state the obvious: That “Saturday Night Live,” once home of the Not Ready for Prime Time players, has hired only three black women for its main cast— in addition to Yvonne Hudson, a featured player in 1980 — in four decades says more about the show than about the talent pool.”

The show answered its critics this past Saturday night, when actress Kerry Washington hosted the show. In the opening skit, Ms. Washington was asked to play several black female characters, looking incredulous as she ran back and forth for quick wardrobe changes.

As she switched characters, an announcer came on, with text on the screen acknowledging the situation in what I thought was a fairly humorous way:

“The producers of Saturday Night Live would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight. We made these requests both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable talent and also because SNL does not currently have a black woman in the cast. As for the latter reason, we agree this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future. Unless of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.”

From a crisis communications perspective, there’s an interesting question here: Was the skit an effective response to the situation?

Maybe. The skit was self-aware, funny, and it answered the critics in a way that was genuine to the show. That Ms. Washington played characters Mr. Thompson once portrayed or that haven’t been possible to portray on the show recently was slyly smart.

However, if SNL does nothing to correct this egregious problem by casting a black woman quickly, the skit will be considered flip and dismissive in hindsight.

What Do You Think? Did Saturday Night Live Handle The Criticism Well?

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Christina Mozaffari is the vice president of Phillips Media Relations. She tweets at @PMRChristina.


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Should The Washington Redskins Change Their Name?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 22, 2013 – 6:00 am

Imagine a professional sports team called the “Newark Negroes.” If the year was 1913, that name might make historical sense. But if they were still playing in 2013? It’s actually unfathomable—it couldn’t happen, and it wouldn’t be tolerated by American society.

And yet, each week, fans gather at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland to cheer on their hometown Washington Redskins—a name that many consider just as offensive.

If you’re not familiar with the historical baggage carried by the term “Redskins,” here’s how Josh Katzenstein of The Detroit News summarized it:

“In 1755, when the United States was just 13 colonies, Spencer Phips, lieutenant governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called for British settlers to kill Native Americans who resisted.

Instead of bringing the bodies of the Penobscot Indian Nation — who lived in what is now Maine — as proof of the slaying, settlers could return instead with scalps of the men, women and children they attacked, and those “red skins” earned them as much as 50 pounds.”

Washington Redskins by Keith Allison

A poll of Washington, D.C.-area residents conducted by The Washington Post in July (margin of error 4.5 percent) found that only 28 percent of respondents thought the team should change its name. But interestingly, 56 percent of people acknowledged that the term was offensive to Native Americans, and 88 percent of people said a name change would have no impact—or a positive impact—on their support for the team.

That suggests that most people know it’s an offensive name but are reluctant to change it due to their own, positive associations with the team. I can understand that. I grew up in Maryland and rooted for my hometown ‘Skins for many years. Changing the name would feel, in part, like it would partially erase my fond memories of Sundays in the stands at the old RFK Stadium.

Nonetheless, it’s still the right thing to do.

This issue is quickly becoming a big crisis for the team. Earlier this month, Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King said:

“I’ve decided to stop using the Washington team nickname. It’s a name you won’t see me use anymore. The simple reason is that for the last two or three years, I’ve been uneasy when I sat down to write about the team and had to use the nickname…Some people, and some Native American organizations…think the nickname is a slur…I can do my job without using it, and I will.”

Mr. King isn’t alone. According to the BBC, at least five news organizations refuse to use the word “Redskins” in their reporting: The Washington City Paper, the Kansas City Star, Slate, New Republic, and Mother Jones. And certain reporters at USA Today, the Philadelphia Daily News, Buffalo News, and The Washington Post also refuse to use it.

For his part, Redskins Washington NFL franchise owner Daniel Snyder says he will never change the team’s name. Never.

In fairness to Snyder, changing the team’s name could cost the team many millions of dollars. The “Redskins” brand name took decades to build, and changing it could compromise some of its brand equity. But the question is at what point that business loss becomes the less expensive of the two options. If reporters increasingly refuse to use the team’s name, the name “Redskins” would surely lose some of its brand equity anyway. And if the name becomes more stigmatized, you might find fewer fans buying Redskins memorabilia for themselves and their kids.

There’s a good precedent here, and it also comes from Washington, D.C. sports. In 1995, the owner of the Washington Bullets basketball team, Abe Pollin, decided to change the team’s violent-sounding name—a name change he thought appropriate since Washington, D.C. had such a high crime rate.

Pollin ran a contest and allowed fans to decide the new name; fans renamed the team the “Washington Wizards.” If public sentiment continues moving swiftly against Dan Snyder’s Redskins, he might consider using a similarly fan-based approach to rename his team.

Should The Washington Redskins Change Their Name?

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Please leave any additional thoughts in the comments section below.

Photo Credit: Keith Allison, Wikimedia Commons


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Rodney King And The Birth Of Citizen Journalism

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 18, 2012 – 6:07 am

Just past midnight on March 3, 1991, a Los Angeles man named George Holliday was awoken by police sirens.

Curious about the noise, Holliday grabbed his “clunky Sony Handycam” and stepped out on his balcony, according to the Los Angeles Times. The nine minutes of videotape he proceeded to capture that night changed the world.

He recorded the indelible images of white police officers beating an unarmed black motorist named Rodney King. According to Wikipedia, Holliday “contacted the police about a videotape of the incident but was dismissed. He then went to KTLA television with his videotape.”

The video, which aired thousands of times, spawned deep anger inside L.A.’s black neighborhoods. Local residents watched the resulting criminal case against the four white LAPD officers closely. On April 29, 1992, the four officers were acquitted of assault, sparking a week of rioting in Los Angeles that resulted in 53 deaths and more than 2,300 injuries.

Rodney King died yesterday at 47.

I was a college freshman when the beating occurred and remember how shocked we were not only by the brutal beating, but by how one random man’s videotape was responsible for the world learning about the story.

It’s difficult today to remember a time when every citizen wasn’t armed with a smartphone containing a built-in video camera. Holliday largely ushered in an era of citizen journalism in which everyday people armed with video cameras perform the functions once performed solely by “professional” reporters. (Yes, Abraham Zapruder’s famous tape of John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination could also be considered citizen journalism, but cameras then were mostly purchased by hobbyists, not the broader public). 

A still image of the Rodney King beating from George Holliday's camera

Today, we’re well aware that anyone with a camera can suddenly become a journalist. It’s common to see citizen journalists provide the first bloody pictures of national revolution, broadcast the first images from a school shooting, or conduct an ambush interview with a politician. 

The legacy of citizen journalism that Holliday’s video helped leave behind is mixed. On the plus side, it allows ordinary people to expose bad behavior or share images the world would otherwise never see. On the downside, it complicates communications for people who would otherwise be able to communicate more freely.

As an example, the number one question I hear from executives today about social media is this: “How can I prevent employees from secretly recording staff meetings and uploading the audio or video to YouTube?”

The answer, in short, is that they can’t.

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Did Rick Santorum Say That “Black People” Get Medicaid?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 5, 2012 – 1:04 pm

The Internets are abuzz today with news that GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum targeted “black people” who receive Medicaid, while ignoring that the majority of recipients are white.

The heads of the NAACP and National Urban League were both quick to blast Sen. Santorum for his comment, which he is alleged to have made last Sunday during a campaign appearance. And the two leaders would be right to attack Santorum’s comment if he actually said it.

But I don’t think he did. Here’s the clip in question:

On first listen, it indeed sounds like Santorum says “black,” making his quote appear to say:

"I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to earn the money and to provide for themselves and their families…"

 

But listen again. The word “black” makes a hard sound – “ack” – and Sen. Santorum’s word did not. Upon careful listening, it seems to me that the word ends in an “ah” or “igh” sound. Plus, he addressed the comments to “you” (the crowd), meaning that “black people” would have made little sense in that context.

Mr. Santorum says that he was stumbling for another word and accidentally combined two different thoughts in a single jumbled word. As a professional speaker, I admit that that happens to all of us sometimes, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But assuming that Mr. Santorum is indeed innocent, his response to this mini-crisis has been awful.

First, he told CBS News’ Scott Pelley that:

“…he wasn’t aware of the context of his remark, but mentioned that he had recently watched the movie ‘Waiting for Superman,’ which analyzes the American public education system through the stories of several students and their families.” 

 

But by last night, his explanation changed when he spoke to CNN’s John King (fast forward to 2:10):

Notice how Mr. Santorum’s response is loaded with hedged, tentative language:

“I looked at the video, and I don’t, in fact I’m pretty confident I didn’t say ‘black.’ What I think I started to say a word and sort of mumbled it and changed my thought. I don’t recall saying black.”

 

He’s “pretty” confident? He “thinks” he started to say another word? "He doesn’t “recall?”

If he didn’t say the word black, he needed to say so unequivocally. This type of statement would have been far superior:

“I absolutely did not say the word black. I started to say another word and mumbled it and changed my thought. I would never make the statement I’m alleged to have made, especially because it would have been factually incorrect – more Caucasians receive Medicaid than anyone else, so it would have made no sense to single out a particular group.”

 

What do you think? Do you buy Sen. Santorum’s explanation? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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A Racist Word? A Crisis Communications Case Study

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 22, 2011 – 6:32 am

Niggardly (adverb): grudgingly mean about spending or granting. Synonyms: cheap, chintzy, close, closefisted, mean, mingy, miserly, niggard, stingy, parsimonious, penny-pinching, penurious, pinching, pinchpenny, spare, sparing, stinting, tight, tightfisted, uncharitable, ungenerous – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

I was speaking to my wife yesterday when I referenced the word “niggardly.” She immediately thought I had said something racist. (In fact, the word traces back to the 1300s, derives from the word “miser,” and has nothing to do with race.)

Our exchange reminded me of a controversy that occurred in the late 1990s when I lived in Washington, D.C.

David Howard, the head of Washington, D.C.’s Office of Public Advocate, used the word “niggardly”  when speaking about his budget. At the time, Mr. Howard, who is white, was speaking with two African American employees. The employees thought he had used offensive language, and word got out that he had said something racist. Mr. Howard quickly resigned, and DC Mayor Anthony Williams, who is black, accepted his resignation.

Normally, that would have ended the crisis. But then Mr. Howard received support from unexpected places. Julian Bond, the head of the NAACP at the time, jumped to Mr. Howard’s defense:

"You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding. David Howard should not have quit. Mayor Williams should bring him back — and order dictionaries issued to all staff who need them.”

 

So here’s the question: What should your crisis response be if you say something that sounds offensive, but technically isn’t?

Should you resign because you’ve used a word that could be easily misconstrued, or should you fight back and point to other peoples’ ignorance? In this case, I place most of the blame on Mayor Williams. He should have refused to accept Mr. Howard’s resignation and issued a statement along these lines instead:

“Mr. Howard was using a word that means ‘miserly,’ and which has nothing to do with race. I’m not going to accept the resignation of a talented public servant just because some people didn’t know the definition of the word. That said, I might suggest that people working for city government try to avoid using the word from now on. We’ve all seen how easily words can be misconstrued in a city that has too often had a difficult racial history, and we can express the concept of ‘miserly’ without using a word that’s so easily misinterpreted.”

 

Within a couple of weeks, Mayor Williams finally did the right thing – he offered Mr. Howard his job back. In a statement, Mr. Williams admitted the obvious: “I believe I acted too hastily in accepting David’s resignation."

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Related: Maine Gov. LePage Tells NAACP To “Kiss My Butt”

Related: Battered Women, a Tasteless Ad, and a Clueless Apology


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What To Do After You Send Out A Racist Email

Written by Brad Phillips on April 20, 2011 – 6:42 am

Marilyn Davenport, an elected Orange County Republican official, sent an email containing a racist photo to a few of her friends last week. The photo showed President Obama as a baby ape, playing to the most vulgar stereotypes about African-Americans.

After being confronted by the media about the photo, Ms. Davenport sent a defiant email to her fellow Orange County, California Republican leaders on Saturday. That email reads, in part:

“I will NOT resign my central committee position over this matter that the average person knows and agrees is much to do about nothing. Again, for those select few who might be truly offended by viewing a copy of an email I sent to a select list of friends and acquaintances, unlike the liberal left when they do the same, I offer my sincere apologies to you–the email was not meant for you.”

 

As you might imagine, that response didn’t sit well with many people –  including some of her fellow Republican officials. So on Monday, she tried again – this time, with a much more humble tone:

"To my fellow Americans and to everyone else who has seen this e-mail I forwarded and was offended by my action, I humbly apologize and ask for your forgiveness of my unwise behavior. I say unwise because at the time I received and forwarded the e-mail, I didn’t stop to think about the historic implications and other examples of how this could be offensive. I would never do anything to intentionally harm or berate others regardless of ethnicity. Everyone who knows me knows that to be true."

 

In reading this interview with Ms. Davenport, I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, as she says, she did something stupid, reflected about it, realized what she did was wrong, and feels genuine remorse. And I do appreciate that she came to the right conclusion within a few days instead of continuing to defend her bad behavior – plenty of public officials dig their heels in and never admit culpability in any form.

But Ms. Davenport’s second, more humble apology was badly undercut by her first, defiant apology. Many readers will conclude that she said what she actually meant in her first statement, and said what she thought she should in her second.

One of the most difficult things for people in crisis is to go straight for the second apology. Their instinct is to go for the first apology, which allows them to defend their motives, actions, and honor. But that rarely works.

Imagine if Ms. Davenport had gone straight to the second apology instead of releasing the first one. Sure, people would have still been upset. But the story would have had fewer days of shelf life, and more people would have believed her statement was sincere.

Related: Bad Apologies Are Worse Than No Apologies

Related: A Disturbing New Trend In Crisis PR Apologies


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ALF: The Racist Tapes

Written by Brad Phillips on December 29, 2010 – 6:49 am

Remember ALF, the 1980s sitcom that millions watched but no one actually admitted watching?

Last week, a new outtakes clip from ALF hit the Internet, in which the actor playing ALF made a series of offensive comments. 

Warning: This clip contains offensive language. 

 

 

People have long debated the appropriateness of racist language in comedy, and I don’t intend to enter that debate with this blog post. It’s not much of a leap, though, to suggest that many people surely find the actor’s use of the “n-word” offensive. That the actor also mocked people with Tourette’s Syndrome (a topic of a then-recent L.A. Law episode) and aimed sexually explicit jokes toward a female co-worker is also notable, but not the topic of this post.

Instead, I’d like to highlight the response of a former ALF associate producer, Steve Lamar, who was asked by TMZ about the new outtakes clip earlier this week:

“You’re talking about 20 years ago when the world was not so ridiculously PC. Anyone that’s offended needs to lighten up already.”

 

The problem, according to Mr. Lamar, isn’t that an actor used words on-set that are offensive to a wide swath of Americans – but rather that those Americans are “ridiculous.” Plus, his inference that the n-word was acceptable in the 1980s seems rather dubious. 

Instead of simply apologizing, Mr. Lamar chose to dig in, extending the shelf-life of the story and diminishing his reputation. His comment reminds me of the one that forced former Sen. Trent Lott to resign his leadership post in 2002 (his quip at a birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond seemed wistful for simpler, more segregationist times).  

If given another chance to comment, Mr. Lamar would be wise to simply express his regret for the use of racist language on the ALF set and apologize to those offended by the incendiary words.

He might take a lesson on tone from MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, who offered a textbook apology after unintentionally stepping into a racial minefield with Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele earlier this year:

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Finally, I’m not sure why Mr. Lamar even chose to comment on-the-record, as the clip doesn’t suggest he personally uttered any of these words. But if he’s going to comment, he better get it right.

Note: The video’s caption, “Alf Say Bad Words VERY FUNNY!!!” was given by the video’s poster, not by me.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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