I’ve dealt with my share of controversial situations having run WEEI for 20-plus years, and they’re never easy. This is especially true in radio where the talent, for the most part, are unscripted for three to four hours at a time. In that arena, comments will be made that are simply unacceptable. It’s part of the spontaneous nature of the medium. The best talent are, most often, the ones that cause these kinds of controversies. They’re not afraid to share their opinions and during the course of interacting with their audience, they make poor decisions and create chaos. That said, in the blink of an eye, any talent can subject him or herself to the white hot spotlight if they aren’t careful.
Whether it’s TV, or radio, on the internet, in blogs, or on podcasts, there are too many broadcasters who simply aren’t smart enough to recognize when they’ve fallen off the cliff. What they chose to say was mistake No. 1. How they responded to that mistake can be the death blow. Yes, we live in a PC world and most companies today are going to err on the side of caution and act quickly and harshly when one of its own steps over the line. That’s why Emily Austen was fired last week from her job at Fox Sports Florida.
I don’t know Emily personally and can’t say whether or not she believes the comments that she made. I’ll take her at her word that she’s very sorry, but her “apology” showed a complete lack of understanding regarding the serious nature of her actions. First of all, social media is the worst place to try and apologize for anything, let alone something like this. Reading a person’s words doesn’t let you know how they really feel. Does Emily really believe that the “this was a joke gone bad” defense is going to cut it? If so, she’s got an awful lot to learn about the media business. If I had no knowledge of who she is or how this happened and stumbled upon this story for the first time, I couldn’t tell you if she’s sorry, or furthermore, if she cares? In her statement she wrote, “anyone who knows me understands this is not how I truly feel….” Truly feel? Meaning what, you feel that way sometimes? It boggles the mind how many people who find themselves in these positions don’t think before they act. It’s bad enough that she opted to engage in the conversation the way she did, but then she waits two days and puts out a statement on twitter? That’s it? She expects that’s going to be enough? It’s not as though she’s reaching 50 million followers where her message will be universally received. Did she ask for any advice before she reacted? If this was the best guidance she could get, I’d be looking for some new advisors.
OK, I’m being harsh, and as I said above, I don’t know her at all. She could be completely remorseful and perhaps the twitter statement is the first, in a series of steps, that will attempt to salvage her reputation. But I hate to tell you Emily, the first step is the most important one. And if I were you, I’d have planted myself in front of as many cameras as I could find, and showed us some emotion so we know that you understand how stupid this was. By the way, for those of you who don’t like David Portnoy, please, don’t blame the environment he provided her. Portnoy’s site, Barstool Sports, has a well-documented reputation for pushing the envelope, but this was not his fault at all. He, nor his co-hosts, even remotely encouraged her. She stepped in it all on her own.
When Steve “Steak” Shapiro, and his co-hosts on a sports radio station in Atlanta were fired a few years back for producing a tasteless bit about Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans Saints player who suffers from ALS, Shapiro went on CNN and fell so hard on the sword it went right through him. The anchor who conducted the interview went so far as to tell him how uncomfortable he seemed, how shaken he was, and frankly, that helped him. He knew how badly he screwed up and he was willing to put himself in an environment, where he could prove to the public that he understood why everyone was so angry with him. I’ve known Steak for 20 years. That episode could’ve easily been a career killer for him, but he handled it the right way and, over time, he’s been lucky enough to create a new career path for himself.
Austen has a chance to do the same, if she can, to use her words, prove to people that she “truly” understands the magnitude of her actions. An unemotional statement on twitter isn’t going to get it done. Her bosses took the easy road by firing her. That’s what makes these situations so challenging. Let’s just make it go away and it’ll all be for the better. Firing the talent isn’t always the right move. It can frequently be the wrong move, but it is the most convenient for the suits that run the show. Does she deserve a second chance? Yes, she absolutely does, but she has to earn it and she’s got a ways to go to rebuild trust with any potential new employer, and more importantly, with the public.