Leslie Moonves is one of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry. As chairman and CEO of the CBS Corporation, he’s helped his company transform from a top-rated broadcast network to a vast multimedia conglomerate. Moonves has earned riches for the company — and for himself, taking home more than $68 million in 2017 alone. He’s married to on-air personality Julie Chen and owns lavish luxury estates in Beverly Hills and Manhattan.
All of that — well, at least some of that — seemed to be in jeopardy not too long ago. A July report in the New Yorker by Ronan Farrow accused the Hollywood powerbroker of multiple cases of sexual misconduct over the years. Actress Illeana Douglas and writer Janet Jones were among those on the record, and their accounts were generally received as credible and honest.
The story dominated headlines. It appeared Moonves might be the next target taken down by the #MeToo movement, a social uprising that put the topic of sexual abuse front-and-center, especially in the workplace. According to at least one report, #MeToo activists have taken aim at more than 400 high-profile executives and employees since mid-2017.
Moonves issued a carefully worded response that was included with the New Yorker story and the CBS Corporation board of directors announced an independent investigation to review the matter without a firm timetable for a final ruling. Moonves was not suspended and without new information to fuel the story, the news cycle refocused its attention elsewhere. Moonves continues to walk into work every day, but doesn’t draw public attention to himself. No news equals no headlines — and no headlines dramatically reduces the number of pitchforks waving in the air.
The initial burst of momentum from the #MeToo movement caught many off guard. Early casualties like Bill O’Reilly, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer and Louis C.K. all lost work and retreated from the public eye. Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby still face their day of reckoning in court. Cosby has already been found guilty on a rape charge and is awaiting sentencing.
Crisis management has always been a part of public relations, but now strategies prepare for the possibility of a #MeToo scandal just in case. If “America’s Dad,” is guilty, how many more Bill Cosbys are out there?
“As much as you can, you want to look at any client and put out any possible scenario that could potentially happen,” says Stephanie Wilson, founder of Wicked Creative, a public relations firm. “That’s why you have a crisis management plan in place — because when it happens, you have to jump into action. To anticipate whatever the crisis may be, you just want to be prepared.”
Wilson says the best way to weather a scandal of any kind is to be honest and apologize when appropriate — but make sure it’s authentic.
“I have always told my clients to be honest – and if they can’t or don’t want to be, don’t comment – but do not, under any circumstances, lie to media,” she says. “Apologies are important, too, and there have been some examples of that – even if it is, ‘If I ever unintentionally made anyone uncomfortable,’ or ‘It pangs me to think that my behavior made anyone uncomfortable…'”
The new strategy appears to be: address the matter directly — but briefly — and then be quiet about it. “Anything in public relations, particularly in crisis management. It’s always better to be proactive than reactive,” adds Wilson.
Earlier in the year, Ryan Seacrest faced accusations of sexual misconduct by his former stylist, Suzie Hardy. He denied the story, but went about his business with a lower profile.
Much like Moonves, he continued to show up to work. Seacrest remained as co-host of Live with Kelly and Ryan every morning and worked the red carpet at the Oscars for E! — although his presence was downplayed and he failed to score many A-list interviews. “And then … nothing,” wrote Hardy in a Hollywood Reporter op-ed. “The silence since then has been deafening.” The Los Angeles Police Department would eventually decline to file charges in the case.
Much like a defendant who follows his lawyer’s advice, sometimes it’s best not to speak about a charge, even if you’re innocent. “It is important to note that in these situations, the PR people are working closely with attorneys,” says Wilson. “Most attorneys love a ‘no comment.'”
Headline fatigue is also a factor. If someone accused of inappropriate behavior can withstand the initial bad publicity, there may be a chance of riding out the storm. However, women’s advocates believe there is power in numbers — and that’s reflected in the dramatic rise of the #MeToo movement.
“Women nowadays are becoming stronger and more of a unit — and empowering each other,” says Marissa Castillo, executive director of Miss Silver State competition. “In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before justice is served.”
There’s another factor working to Moonves’ advantage: money. CBS Corporation may be forced to pay the CEO up to $200 million if he leaves before his contract expires in 2021. Moonves can also cash in if he chooses to leave with “good cause,” and a suspension — if it happens — could qualify.
“If he were smart… he should take a suspension and then use that as a legal argument to say diminution of responsibilities and then claim the $180 million severance package,” Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies at the Yale School of Management, told CBS News. “Oftentimes in a case like this, there’s a lot of negative information, the board just wants to move on — they might let go of the CEO and pay the higher golden parachute.”
However, in today’s climate, publicly-traded companies can’t afford to not be sympathetic toward accusations involving abuse, harassment and intimidation in the workplace. Moonves remains under investigation with public calls for his termination. The issue could remain unresolved for some time, but the story reflects a new Hollywood. While abusive behavior was often ignored, overlooked or downplayed in the entertainment industry’s formerly dark corners, justice is now being handed out quickly in the court of public opinion.
“Personally, I always tell girls, especially in pageantry, to stand up for themselves and have self-confidence,” adds Castillo. “Hopefully, it will change the world and the #MeToo movement will empower women to just keep coming forward and not tolerate such behavior.”