A&E Shoots Self in Foot - Having First Put Foot in Mouth ...
Ned Barnett, Adjunct Professor of Business, Marketing and Public Relations, UNLV & MTSU
Author, Finances for Non-Financial Marketers
and ten other books on PR, Marketing and Advertising
This blog-site tends to cover mistakes that businesses make in dealing with their consumers - so the blogs I post here are usually aimed at dumb practices by bricks-and-mortar or clicks-and-mortar businesses. This blog is a bit different, but A&E is a business, and it has consumers, and in the past few days it has created a foot-in-mouth firestorm that is going to cost A&E millions of dollars of business and revenue - they will also alienate a lot of customers, and in doing so suffer a permanent loss of business.
First, a disclaimer. From 1973 until his death earlier this year, my oldest and closest friend was Gay, and while he didn't advertise this, he made no secret of it. He was also a member of a Christian Church, and prayed that God's infinite grace would save him. It's impossible for an honest man to have a Gay man who was, for 40 years, my very closest friend, my frequent business partner and my co-worker and also harbor ill-will toward Gays. I hold no such animosity.
But, like hundreds of millions of other Americans, I also believe in the bible - and I have a good idea of what the bible says about sin in general, and that one particular sin (among all the particular sins). Finally, I know that all people (including me) sin. So anything you read here that you "think" is anti-Gay is either your mistaken impression or, more likely, my own poor choice of words.
Now, another (the last) disclaimer. I have never watched Duck Dynasty - from what I've seen, I don't much care for reality TV, but beyond that, I'm not a hunter. By choice, I don't tend to watch shows about hunting. I prefer target shooting. I'm not anti-hunter, either - my son's a bow-hunter, and I'm proud of his skill - but hunting is just not my "thing."
However, I am passionate about the First Amendment (I make my living as a writer and communicator). In one sense, I do not see this as a First Amendment issue - a private company can fire or hire whom they please, and only government censorship is prevented by the First Amendment.
The idea that a man should be punished, publicly and financially, for expressing his own deeply-held religious beliefs, that is anathema in a country protected by the First Amendment's "free exercise" of religion clause. In addition, that this man was punished for sharing his mainstream Christian beliefs that are spelled out repeatedly in the bible - in a country with a nominal majority of Christians - well, that says something deeply serious about the culture war against those persons of faith in America. That's my other disclaimer, or caveat.
On with the show (so to speak). Those two disclaimers aside, and more to the point, since 1975, I have routinely been called in by clients and employers to resolve self-generated crises, and this is a great example of just such a self-inflicted business and PR disaster. A&E was pressured to take action when one of its stars honestly spoke of his honest religious beliefs - which is odd since he was hired because of those beliefs and because of the way he expresses them. A&E, in promoting Duck Dynasty, called this employee a "bible-thumper" in their show promotion.
But they were pressured by well-organized advocates who speak for a minority of Americans, as is their right. They have the same First Amendment freedoms as does Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, to say what they believe in the public marketplace of ideas. However, unlike Phil Robertson, who asked for no censure or punishment for those who violate God's laws, leaving that up to God Himself, GLAAD insisted that any public figure who disagrees with them must be punished - including being deprived of their income.
The irony here is rich. By asserting the right to demand that others be punished for disagreeing with them, GLAAD, by necessity, must grant the right for others to demand that GLAAD and its constituents by punished for speaking out their own views. Either that or they're saying that only one set of views (GLAAD's) is legitimate of public protection, and that view can be found nowhere in the Constitution or in statutory law.
A&E, which is in business to make money, not to advocate for fairness or constitutional principles, felt the pressure from GLAAD, and decided to act. However, they didn't have to boot Robertson off his own show - they could have just decried his position and moved on. But they did choose to punish Robertson, and now, millions of their viewers will make sure that A&E pays the consequences for their one-sided and anti-religious stance.
A&E essentially fired key program cast member Phil Robertson for something he said. Worse, they didn't fire him for anything he said on the show, but for something he said to a reporter from GQ, a magazine interviewing him. Further, they fired him for speaking out about a topic that had nothing to do with the show. What Robertson said was a bit crass, but I take it that "crass" is part of his style, part of what makes the show a financial and ratings success for A&E.
I have read the comments, which offer his perspective on what the bible says about all the varieties of sex a person can have that is outside of marriage. Basically, the bible says that any extra-marital sex is bad, and lists a number of examples, from infidelity to bestiality to homosexuality to male prostitution.
Here's the rub. A&E has promoted Robertson and his show for their bible-thumping religiously-conservative and very outspoken views. They attracted 11.8 million fanatic followers to the premiere episode of their current 4th season - a landmark viewer record for any cable program - and for A&E, that's a gold mine. According to some sources, episodes of Duck Dynasty have been all five of the top-five A&E shows of all time.
In creating and promoting the show, A&E executives have all but egged Robertson on to become an outspoken redneck "character," and to do that for all for the almighty dollar. Now, when Robertson does nothing more than express his belief in the bible - which very definitely speaks out against all manner of out-of-wedlock sex, including infidelity, bestiality, homosexuality, the temptations of lewd women (the book of Proverbs is filled with that) and male prostitution. In this, he was acting in character as a bible-believing saved-by-Christ "bible thumper," exactly the character A&E bought and paid for - exactly the character who helped create the most profitable program in A&E history.
Had any member of the A&E leadership team bothered to check their cash cow, they'd have known that:
a. He believes what the bible says; and
b. The bible says that homosexuality is a forbidden sin
If anyone should have been punished (and nobody should) it should be the A&E executive who didn't bother to read his bible before unleashing the Robertson clan on America. Phil was just doing what he's always done - and what A&E had been paying him handsomely for. He was telling the truth as he saw it, citing the bible as his source of truth.
Apparently, speaking the truth about belief and about what's in the bible has become - if not against the law - then punishable here in the United States, which was once a bastion of religious freedom.
Predictably, the Gay defense groups such as GLAAD immediately denounced Robertson for exercising his First Amendment rights of free practice of religion and free speech. In their eyes, free speech of course applies to anyone who will speak out in favor of homosexuality - as it should, because advocating for rights and respect for homosexuals is absolutely protected speech. However, in their eyes, that freedom only works one way. You're free to support them, but if you oppose what they stand for, you should be pilloried, fired, banished, castigated and mocked in public. That's their position, and they're entitled to it, but it does tend to make them look like hypocrites, and does make it harder for non-members to support their extreme and one-sided position.
GLAAD also showed themselves to be clueless about Christianity. GLAAD's spokesman Wilson Cruz told the public that "Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil's lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe."
"What true Christians believe?"
If GLADD's spokesmen and leaders had just read the bible, they'd know that Phil Robertson didn't lie about what the bible says. The bible takes a harsh view on any kind of sexual activity outside the man-woman marriage bed, including homosexuality - but the bible doesn't single that out as an especially damnable sin. The bible - and bible-believing Christians - take it as an article of faith that all sexual activity outside the marriage bed shared by a husband and wife is on God's sin list.
This isn't "hate" - as far as the bible goes, it's "fact."
From a purely PR point of view, GLAAD could have decried Phil's views without trying to "out-Christian" a man known primarily for his Christian beliefs. It's just foolish to appear both more knowledgeable about a belief than it's believer, and to also appear so ignorant in public, especially when there are other options.
But that was GLAAD. Their default message for those it opposes is a commercial "off with his head." No surprises there. But what about A&E?
A&E, which had many options, decided that it's solution was to suspend Robertson indefinitely. They had other options. Take a look at their public statement:
"We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson's comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty," A&E said in a statement. "His personal views in no way reflect those of A+E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community ... "
If A&E had stopped there, they would have expressed their displeasure at Robertson's statement - and his beliefs - and distanced the network from its largest-ever and most profitable star. End of story.
Except ... they added one more sentence. They took a reasonable statement and pushed it into the realm of trying to destroy someone financially for the sin of sharing his heart-felt religious beliefs, beliefs backed by the bible (the best-selling and most-read book in history). A&E added: "The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely," and immediately all hell broke loose.
Already, the Robertson family has rallied around Phil. They have said publicly: "While some of Phil's unfiltered comments to the reporter were coarse, his beliefs are grounded in the teachings of the Bible. Phil is a Godly man who follows what the Bible says are the greatest commandments: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart' and 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Phil would never incite or encourage hate."
Much more important, however, the family is fighting back, with the only weapon they have - threatening to walk, calling into question the very future of the show that is the top-rated cable program of all time, and A&E's biggest cash cow.
"We are disappointed that Phil has been placed on hiatus for expressing his faith, which is his constitutionally protected right. We have had a successful working relationship with A&E but, 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."
There's real iron here - is A&E's suspension of Robertson is a kind of hollow suspension. It doesn't include next season's shows (which include Robertson in all of them) because they have already been filmed, and to throw them away to enforce the suspension would cost A&E money. The suspension, if it actually happens, will apply to next season (2015), but only if the show's renewed, and only if anybody still remembers this kerfuffle in 12 or 13 months.
To me, this is a lose-lose situation, and for a couple of reasons.
First, this action has already begun to polarize Duck Dynasty viewers who share a strong Christian faith with its star - and it's a fair bet that few of GLAAD's members are avid Duck Dynasty viewers. Beginning now, A&E is losing business, and it will only continue as the controversy roars on.
Second, this is a "lose" for GLAAD because it exposes the group's intolerance to a wider public than ever before - and as Christians begin to see GLAAD as an oppressor actively stifling public expressions of faith and belief, they will see a backlash from those who neither want to victimize Gays nor to be victimized by Gays.
Finally he big losers are A&E's shareholders, most of whom (statistically) are more likely to be at least nominal Christians than they are to be Gay, or passionate supporters of Gay advocate groups. Were I a stockholder, I'd already be asking the executives why they'd taken actions sure to "tank" the value of the stock. Wall Street doesn't give a tinker's dam about "causes." They care about profits, and when they see A&E losing viewers, stock prices will inevitably fall.
I would not want to be an A&E shareholder today, nor would I want to be an A&E executive. Stocks will fall and heads will roll.
But this should also concern any foresighted GLAAD leader, because as networks see the financial cost of supporting a single-issue advocacy group that has nothing to do with their (the network's) business, those networks will re-think blindly caving to GLAAD in the future.
In the long run, the big loser is A&E - a bigger loser will be GLAAD (once for-profit businesses see the dollar-and-sense cost of blindly caving to their high-pressure demands).
But the big winner may be bible-believing Christians, who come to realize that their beliefs are under attack, but that they are also not alone.