Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Doubling Down: A Communication Gamble

--> This article first appeared in odwyerspr.com.

In the casino game of blackjack, doubling down is the chance to double your bet after receiving your first two cards. Then, you’re allowed just one more card. But doubling down is now code for reinforcing a controversial or politically charged position with a potentially more controversial or politically charged position.

The inspiration for this article, of course, was the days-long verbal attack on Georgetown University law school student Sandra Fluke by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. While Fluke argued that contraception should be made available through any employer, Limbaugh called her a “slut” and a “prostitute.” His logic makes us, the U.S. taxpayers, the “pimps.” Limbaugh doubled down when he continued the next day and demanded, “If we’re going to pay for this, then we want something in return… the videos of all this sex posted on-line so we can see what we’re getting for our money.”

Was this just a passionate stance on morality or on the First Amendment? Can we excuse it because, after all, Rush will be Rush? Georgetown President John J. DeGioia had it right when he wrote that Limbaugh “responded with behavior that can only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student." A number of Limbaugh’s advertisers seem to concur. Two sponsors – Sleep Number and Quicken Loans – took a stand and reacted quickly. Now, a total of eight firms have walked away or suspended their support.

So, what about the front-runners for the Republican nomination? Their response has been shamefully, how should I say, impotent. Mitt Romney said, “It's not the language I would have used. But I'm focusing on the issues that I think are significant in the country today and that's why I'm here talking about jobs in Ohio.” And Rick Santorum rationalized, “He's being absurd. But that's, you know, an entertainer can be absurd.”

Seeing the advertising dollars begin to disappear, Limbaugh finally apologized over the weekend:

“For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week. In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke.

I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress. I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities. What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit? In my monologue, I posited that it is not our business whatsoever to know what is going on in anyone's bedroom nor do I think it is a topic that should reach a Presidential level.

My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”

This looks like an apology wrapped in an explanation inside a justification. And, in predictable fashion, Limbaugh told his listeners that he felt no pressure to apologize:

"I reject millions of dollars of advertising a year, much to the chagrin of my ad sales team including General Motors. I made the decision [after the government bailout] not to accept [GM advertising] because you, the audience, comes first. We're going to replace those that leave."

It’s hard to quantify but the doubling down phenomenon seems to be growing; when challenged, the default response is often a lurch toward further entrenchment. President Clinton’s denials about Monica Lewinsky, Mel Gibson and his tirade against Jews, Michelle Bachmann and her assertions that then Senator Obama has anti-American views, Anthony Weiner and the infamous Twitter messages and photos, the list goes on. In each of these examples, and so many more, the offenders were given an opportunity – a big media platform – to reposition or restate their claims (i.e., apologize and just plain ol’ admit that they were wrong or lied). Some do apologize eventually but not until a good deal of damage has been inflicted on themselves and on those around them. Some can recover from the incident depending on the amount of trust and previously banked good will, degree of authentic contrition and subsequent behavior. But why take the chance on shattering credibility, crushing a reputation or poisoning a legacy?

Will Rogers’ cowboy wisdom still echoes: “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.” No matter how awkward or embarrassing or uncomfortable, bite the bullet and take the pain as early as possible. In his apology statement, Rush Limbaugh asked, “What happened to personal responsibility and accountability?” Exactly, Rush, exactly.

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