Up until this week, it was a banner year for A&E’s “Duck Dynasty.” The massively popular reality show, which follows the quirky Robertson family running a duck call business in Louisiana, shattered cable ratings records. The Robertsons made appearances at award shows and guest-starred on sitcoms. There was a clothing line, a hit Christmas CD and even a spot on Barbara Walters’s annual “10 Most Fascinating People” special Wednesday.
Then, the same day that Walters raved about the family’s reported $80 million fortune, the walls came down, in the form of critical comments made on homosexuality by “Duck” patriarch Phil Robertson during a GQ interview. The story went viral, the remarks left people outraged and a stunned cable network suddenly had a major public-relations crisis surrounding its most important show. A show, by the way, that averaged 12 million viewers for its most recent season premiere — just part of the “Duck Dynasty” empire that has become a serious cash cow for parent company A&E Networks. Now the cable network, which other than “Dynasty” is best known for reality fare such as “Storage Wars” and “Shipping Wars,” has to distance itself from one of its most visible stars.
It all started when Robertson — a 67-year-old self-proclaimed “Bible thumper” — was asked by the magazine what he considered sinful. He responded, “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.”
There were some other crude remarks about why he prefers women and on race relations in the Jim Crow South. Reaction was swift and loud. The NAACP expressed outrage. Gay-rights groups called for A&E to condemn their star for his “vile” comments. The network went one step further: Executives announced late Wednesday that Robertson would be suspended from filming “indefinitely.”
The fallout only continued Thursday — angry defenders (including Sarah Palin and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal) cited free speech: “It is a messed-up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended,” Jindal said. Others lobbied for the show to be canceled.
Meanwhile, the Robertson family wrote on its Web site that the patriarch’s remarks were expressing his faith and that it is “disappointed” he’s been put on filming hiatus by A&E. The family members added: “As a family, we cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm. We are in discussions with A&E to see what that means for the future of ‘Duck Dynasty.’ ”
In all the chaos, A&E execs have a delicate road ahead of them. The show currently isn’t filming, but returns for a new season on Jan. 15. According to crisis managers, the future of the show could hinge on the next move A&E makes.
The rule in a crisis “you only get one bite of the apology apple,” said Chris Lehane, a crisis management expert and co-author of “Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control.” “And you’ve gotta get it right.”
In other words, the network is going to be under tremendous scrutiny going forward — and it is imperative that there aren’t any other mistakes.
The standard crisis playbook, Lehane says, is this: The network issues an apology; the talent issues an apology; the network does something to show support for the community.
A&E did issue an apologetic statement — and quickly, which is key — emphasizing that Robertson’s views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, which are “supporters and champions of the LGBT community.” As for Robertson? Well, he issued a statement saying that his mission is to follow the Bible, and “part of that teaching is that women and men are meant to be together.” Though he clarified that he loves “all of humanity.”
As for support of the community, Jim Bates, of the Los Angeles-based Sitrick and Company public relations firm, suggests that A&E needs to address the controversy “relatively soon, and directly,” possibly on the series itself. Given that it’s going to be reiterated the moment the series comes back — and Robertson will likely be on the already-filmed footage — it’s best to be upfront about the off-camera drama, and find a way to make amends with the offended viewers. Otherwise, there’s still “lingering bitterness” when the show comes back, Bates said.
Overall, crisis managers suspect that the language — “suspension” instead of straight-up “fired” — suggests that the network has no plans to cancel the show. And while this isn’t exactly the kind of attention A&E would want, chances are the ratings won’t be hurt in next month’s season premiere.
Mark Irion, president of D.C. public relations firm Levick, which specializes in crisis communication, says he suspects the demographic of the show will not flee the programming — but with the opportunity for even more viewers, the show has a unique chance to make a sincere statement.
“I think A&E has first of all taken a step, a very positive step,” he said. “But I think they really have a great opportunity, when you have a show that reaches so many people, to send a message about exactly what they’ll tolerate — and what they won’t.”