If you haven’t heard, Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” recently became embroiled in an apparent racism controversy that started on Twitter. This situation serves as an object lesson for us all in the importance of personal brand management. If you aren’t up to speed on the controversy, here are the highlights.
On the March 27, 2014 episode of “The Colbert Report,” they ran a segment mocking the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. The letter written about the foundation by Dan Snyder, the Redskins’ owner, reads like a Johnny-come-lately attempt to feign cultural sensitivity and whitewash 80+ years of stereotype perpetuation.
Colbert, whose show revels in the satirical, suggested that he too should start a charity based around a character named Ching-Chong Ding-Dong (played by Colbert himself) that caricatures Asian stereotypes. Colbert’s proposed charity would be named “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”
After the show aired, a now-deleted tweet appeared on the @ColbertReport account, the official account for the show. The tweet read, “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”
Unlike the actual show segment, the apparently racist tweet sparked a furious backlash on Twitter. Those outraged by the tweet employed the hashtag #CancelColbert to signal their discontent. Needless to say, careers in entertainment have been derailed by less and Colbert distanced himself from the tweet on his personal twitter account.
In a shocking show of accountability, Comedy Central announced that the @ColbertReport Twitter account is not managed by either Stephen Colbert or his team, but is a corporate account. (Update: The @ColbertReport twitter account has been deleted.) While some people will read that as Comedy Central doing spin control for a popular show, it’s not just possible, but quite likely that Colbert has nothing to do with that account.
Marketing departments frequently take responsibility for creating Facebook posts and Twitter content. What happened here is that someone in Comedy Central’s marketing department was asleep at the wheel, took an inflammatory line out of context, and flung it out into the digital ether.
So what can we all learn from this from this about personal brand management? When Colbert signed on with Comedy Central, he gave up a certain amount of control over his personal brand. To some extent, we all do this when we outsource. What Colbert didn’t do is something that businesses do on a regular basis. He didn’t insist that people posting in his name understand his voice and his brand.
Colbert’s core audience isn’t going to abandon him and his detractors already hate him. So he doesn’t gain or lose with either of those groups. Where this brand management failure is going to hurt him is with the people who might have started watching, but won’t because of this incident. Some might claim that those people should fact check first. Should they? Probably, but that isn’t the issue. The issue is that many, perhaps most, of them won’t fact check. They’ll assume the racist accusation is true and store it as a heuristic for all things Stephen Colbert.
Colbert’s personal brand is, in some ways, forever tarnished by something over which he had no direct input. The same thing can happen to any of us. The lesson to be learned from this is that your brand is fragile and keeping control of it is vital. If you do use an assistant to ghostwrite and post to your blog, or outsource tweets and Facebook updates, check their work. Make sure they genuinely understand your voice and the values on which you build your personal brand. As Colbert’s Twitter crisis shows us, it only takes one wrong move to ignite a firestorm.