by Steve Adubato, PhD
Don Imus is supposed to be a first-rate communicator with a 35-year broadcasting career that has made him millions of dollars. He is the original “shock jock” who uses a provocative communication style to get reaction and ratings. He has also made millions of dollars for his employers at CBS and WFAN on his daily radio program, which until this past Thursday had been simulcast on MSNBC (full disclosure; I am a media analyst for MSNBC).
On Wednesday, April 4, Don Imus made one of the most insensitive, outrageous and despicable comments regarding the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. The fact that he called them “nappy-headed hos” is only a small piece of his degrading and dumb effort at trying to be funny. The response to Imus’ racist comments was swift. There were calls for his resignation and firing and MSNBC responded by taking him off of their airways and his radio career is hanging on by a thread at CBC.
Imus, the consummate communicator, has been very busy apologizing, yet many aren’t satisfied and continue to question his motives and communication style since the April 4 incident. Some questions.
Q—What about when Don Imus apologized? Does that matter?
A—Absolutely. The incident happened on Wednesday and he didn’t apologize until Friday. What happened during those 48 hours? Apologies must come immediately—within minutes if not hours after an incident. The offending party must communicate that he understands the impact that he has had and that people have been hurt without waiting to see what the reaction or fallout will be. For some reason, Imus couldn’t or wouldn’t apologize until it seemed he had his back against the wall. But was it too late by then?
Q—In Imus’ first on-air apology, he provided several instances where he said he had been very supportive of the black community. Does that help?
A—Not really. Imus’ apology should have been direct and to the point. Instead, he rambled on in his first apology for nearly 20 minutes. It should have been directed to the Rutgers University women or anyone who was offended by his comments. Imus talked about his ranch that takes care of kids with cancer or other serious diseases. He said that 10 percent of the children there are African American or minority. He talked about having black friends. Imus also said to an irate black caller on an April 10 Al Sharpton radio program; “I bet you I’ve slept in a house with more black children who were not related to me than you have.” Who says things like that? These kinds of qualifications, explanations and caveats only dilute an apology. Imus using the “some of my best friends are black” defense only makes him look worse.
Q—Many of the headlines this past week referred to Imus’ “you people” reference that he made during the Al Sharpton radio interview. Imus said he was only referring to an African American Congresswoman who had called the program and Sharpton himself. Isn’t it fair to say that his “you people” comments are being taken out of context?
A—Yes, but that’s the point when it comes to crisis communication and dealing with the media. What Imus said out of frustration was; “…so I can’t get any place with you people, but I can get some place with Jesus.” Sharpton responded, “Who is ‘you people?’” Imus then went on to say he was only talking about the Congresswoman (Carolyn Kilpatrick) and Sharpton.
In the communication game, it doesn’t matter what Imus’ intent was. You can never use the phrase “you people” in any situation, particularly one like this. Any amateur communicator knows that. It shows a lack of sensitivity and understanding as to how your words are being understood. No matter what happens to Don Imus’ radio career, his communication performance in the last week provides powerful lessons for any professional communicating under pressure.