Allegations of wrongdoing at The Ellen Show have dominated the headlines for weeks. Yet one key voice was noticeably missing from the story – that of Ellen DeGeneres herself.

When Ellen finally did apologize, her written words fell flat. She waited too long, and she used the wrong medium. 

From a crisis communications perspective, what should Ellen have done? Red Banyan Founder and CEO Evan Nierman has some thoughts. 

Watch his take on Ellen’s apology on YouTube and read his opinion piece below for more.

Ellen DeGeneres’ Failed PR Strategy has her Playing PR Catch-Up

By Evan Nierman

Ellen DeGeneres has been an A-list celebrity for years, known for her eponymous television show and regarded as a warm, inclusive and affable on-air personality. But lately she has been taking heat for accusations about fostering a toxic workplace culture. Facing accusations of mistreating employees, Ellen has also failed to look out for herself, resulting in a bona fide public relations fiasco.

For years, rumors floated that Ellen’s carefully cultivated and squeaky-clean TV persona may not be consistent with her real-life personality. Allegations of negative behavior began to gather major steam in July when BuzzFeed News broke a story teeming with anonymous allegations from former employees who claimed they were treated poorly. They went even further, accusing senior-level managers of racism, sexual harassment and intimidation tactics.

Ellen and her representatives were slow to react to that bombshell report, taking two weeks to respond by issuing an emailed apology to staff members. 

During this time, attacks on DeGeneres’ integrity multiplied and the voices of critics grew louder, going largely unchallenged as the star remained silent. As negative coverage began to make headlines, one voice was noticeably missing: Ellen’s. Questions went unanswered and allegations piled up, with journalists working earnestly to pry salacious information from current and former employees.

And when Ellen finally apologized, her statement fell flat and failed to squelch the controversy. Digging herself even further into a PR crisis, she actually deflected ownership of the problematic behavior, instead heaping blame on her subordinate managers for not living up to the expectations she claimed to have set. 

“I’m also learning that people who work with me and for me are speaking on my behalf and misrepresenting who I am, and that has to stop,” she said in the letter to staff, which was leaked to the media and published on July 30 by the Hollywood Reporter.

Ellen compounded her error of being slow to tell her side of the story by failing to demonstrate accountability in the face of accusations. Ellen chose not to fully accept responsibility for the goings-on behind the scenes at the show bearing her name. Instead, she pointed fingers at others, which will ultimately make it harder for her reputation to rebound.

By not fundamentally addressing the core issues at play, Ellen’s delayed and unconvincing apology predictably led to further backlash. In remaining quiet, it appears that Ellen and her team were hoping for the controversy to simply blow over, subsumed by a rapidly shifting media cycle.  However, that strategy backfired. Her strategy could apparently be best described as: let sleeping dogs lie. But in the end, those dogs rose to bite her in the rump.

In the worlds of politics and public relations, tardy and half-hearted apologies can be even more harmful than silence. That is especially true for public figures whose brand has been built upon being likeable and kind. 

An apology that falls short can compound the pain of a person under fire, since it can appear crafted for PR purposes alone or a last-ditch attempt to salvage the respect or admiration of the public. Some celebrities can weather allegations of wrongdoing or bad behavior because people expect it of them. But those same behaviors don’t fly with others who are held to a higher standard, especially celebs whose actions don’t square with wholesome personas.

Had Ellen been more assertive and responded from the get-go, then she would have an easier road to redemption. Had she taken responsibility and used her remarkable communications skills to ask for understanding and generate empathy from her global audience, then these allegations would have already become yesterday’s news. Instead of assertively addressing the elephant in the room, Ellen instead allowed the story to grow more damaging through the past weeks.  

Is this the end of Ellen? Probably not, but how quickly she earns back the trust and affection of the public—not to mention her network bosses—will depend heavily upon what she does next. She is unquestionably late to the game, but there are things that she can do to attempt a pivot. It would be better late than never in terms of giving her perspective and seeking to defend her reputation.  

With the number three talk show in syndication, Ellen has a tremendous platform and huge viewership. Another strategy would be activating her loyal cadre of fans and supporters as well as other major celebrities whose every social media post or statement can generate headlines in support of her. 

So far, by sitting on the sidelines, Ellen has allowed her opponents to score major points and force her to focus on defense. She needs a new playbook and it’s high time for her to get off the bench and into the PR game.