How not to respond to a reputational crisis
January 2022: Movie Director Joss Whedon has given what must be the most ill-judged interview during a reputational crisis since Prince Andrew’s notorious television disaster. Tony Jaques investigates
Whedon was responding to allegations of misconduct on the sets of productions including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Justice League. Image: Jagcz/123rf
In late 2020, Gal Gadot and Justice League co-star Ray Fisher said Whedon’s behaviour on the film had been: “Gross, abusive, unprofessional and completely unacceptable.” This was followed in February 2021 by a parade of Buffy stars who accused him of toxic, cruel and inappropriate behaviour.
Now, after almost a year without responding, the Director has given a wide-ranging interview to New York Magazine, because, he said, he could no longer remain silent as people try to pry his legacy from his hands. He certainly would not have been pleased with the resulting headline: The Undoing of Joss Whedon: The Buffy creator, once an icon of Hollywood feminism, is now an outcast accused of misogyny.
Based on the damning interview, Whedon seems to have broken just about every rule for effectively managing a reputational crisis. Crisis training is no laughing matter. Here are some key advice points that might help:
Don’t blame or denigrate your accusers: After Gal Gadot accused him of threatening to ruin her career, Whedon said she didn’t understand his way of speaking. “English is not her first language and I tend to be annoyingly flowery in my speech.” Her response? “I understood perfectly.” Ray Fisher accused Whedon of slashing his character's presence and making choices he thought “would be offensive to the Black community” as well as lightening his skin colour in the film. Whedon insisted Fisher’s story line “logically made no sense,” and he felt the acting was bad. “We’re talking about a malevolent force,” he said. “We’re talking about a bad actor in both senses.” Fisher called the comments “lies and buffoonery.”
Don’t play the victim: Whedon attempted to explain his behaviour by claiming he suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome from a disturbed childhood, and that he was seeking treatment for sex and love addiction. Even the reporter wondered whether this was: “Using a page from some crisis management playbook.”
Keep it real: Admitting affairs with young women on Buffy, Whedon said he felt terrible about them, mainly because “it messes up the power dynamic.” He argued that he “had to" sleep with them because he was “powerless" to resist. He feared if he didn’t have sex with them, he would “always regret it.”
Apolgise: Even if Whedon didn’t want to apologise for his behaviour (or was advised by his lawyers not to) there are ways to at least appear apologetic. For example: “I’m sorry if people misunderstood me,” or: “I’m sorry if people felt that way.” But he didn’t offer even that minimum. “If I am upsetting somebody it will be a problem for me.” Again, all about himself.
Commit to change: Whedon acknowledged he was “not as civilized” back then. But, he justified his behaviour. “I was young. I yelled and sometimes you had to yell. This was a young cast and it was easy for everything to turn into a cocktail party... Should I have been nicer?” he mused. Perhaps he could have been calmer, more direct. But would that not have compromised the work? Maybe, he said, the problem was he’d been too nice.
Don’t imagine a one-off interview will end the situation: Like Prince Andrew – who hoped a television interview would set the record straight about his relationship with sex-offender Jeffrey Epstein – Whedon apparently thought his long-delayed interview would help to restore his reputation. Instead, it made global headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Will his Hollywood career survive? Only time will tell. But if it doesn’t, surely he has only himself to blame.
This blog was originally published in Managing Outcomes by Tony Jaques, Director of Issue Outcomes Pty Ltd, for people who work in issue and crisis management