It’s one of the oldest questions in issue management. Do we respond to the issue, or will taking action simply “give it oxygen” Sometimes this question is merely an excuse not to get involved when you should. But Ben Affleck has shown that sometimes drawing attention to an issue really is a mistake.
The Hollywood star is the latest victim of the “Streisand effect,” when an effort to hide or censor some information has the unintended consequence of creating more attention that it had in the first place. It is named for Barbra Streisand, who famously tried to suppress photos of unidentified homes in Malibu, and thus told the world which one was her home.
Ben Affleck’s misjudgement came after his participation in the US celebrity ancestry show “Finding Your Roots” revealed that one of his ancestors owned slaves. Hardly remarkable, and the programme was scheduled on the niche channel PBS. However the actor demanded they remove the slavery revelation, and his action created a story which trended on social media far beyond the limited PBS audience. With some timely PR advice, Affleck quickly apologised, but not before the story about his slave-owning ancestor had circled the world
Importantly for issue management, it’s not just super-sensitive celebrities who create self-inflicted reputational damage. Corporations are also vulnerable, often enthusiastically aided by over-zealous lawyers.
Take for example the incident in 2013 when a YouTube user uploaded video of his Samsung Galaxy phone which caught fire. Samsung demanded that before they would honour his warranty he must delete the YouTube post; promise not to upload similar material; absolve the company of all liability; waive his right to bring a law suit and never make the terms of agreement public. The angry customer posted Samsung’s demands on line plus a new video, which drew well over 1 million views. Samsung eventually replaced the phone, but could have done so weeks earlier and avoided further terrible publicity.
But the grand-daddy of all such self-inflicted issue debacles is the McLibel saga, whose initial misjudgement has its 25th anniversary this year. When some anti-corporate activists in London handed out a leaflet making highly critical claims about McDonalds, the fast food giant decided to launch action against two perpetrators who refused to apologise. The ensuing court case became the longest in British legal history and, although McDonalds “won,” it proved to be a seven year ulcer eating away at the company’s reputation. As a result of the case the leaflet, once handed out on the street in the hundreds, was reportedly reprinted over a million times. And a very damaging documentary film about the affair was claimed to have been watched by 25 million people world-wide. The McLibel case now appears in textbooks everywhere as an example of how over-reacting can bring terrible unintended consequences.
Two decades later, Ben Affleck has provided a fresh reminder to issue managers and communicators everywhere about the Streisand effect and the dangers of bad judgement and bad legal advice.