Roseanne's quick cancellation offers a case study in high-stakes crisis management

Image courtesy Adam Rose / ABC 

Image courtesy Adam Rose / ABC 

With just a few keystrokes, controversial sitcom superstar Roseanne Barr unwittingly put the wheels in motion that would cost everyone involved with her show their jobs, and the show’s network, ABC, millions of dollars. As in many instances before this, what happened is a cautionary tale about the power of social media. However, it also provides a great case study on how a top brand moved - boldly, if perhaps imperfectly - to contain a crisis and uphold its values.

Before we dive into the rapidly developing events of Tuesday morning, we need to take a step back and understand how Roseanne was a TV show of strategic importance. For starters, its lead actor who the show is named after is a well known Trump supporter, an oddity in liberal Hollywood. Recognizing her appeal with the American heartland, ABC took a gamble on reviving the show that would put her politics on full blast. Turns out that gamble paid off, and Roseanne became a smash hit. Many Americans who subscribe to the ‘Make America Great Again’ motto believe the entertainment industry doesn’t value them. This show offered them inclusion, so much so that their ratings obsessed President even tweeted his support for his newfound Hollywood surrogate in Ms. Barr.  

While politics was a major driving force in the show’s appeal, it’s not what caused it’s sudden cancellation as many of Roseanne’s supporters will try to argue. This is not some liberal, mainstream media conspiracy. More plainly, it was about racism. Ms. Barr’s bizzare, racist tweets were the point of no return for the TV network. Yes, ABC had been criticized in the past for holding its nose at her tweets, but this latest digital outburst from Ms. Barr went much too far, and they had to act fast.

In a time of crisis, time is always of the essence. The public, stakeholders and internal audiences expect a response, and they expect it immediately, with force. Case and point: As Twitter began to erupt with backlash against Ms. Barr’s tweets, there was radio silence from the ABC brass. We are talking hours here, not days, and it goes to show how fast companies are now expected to respond.

The network knew what was at stake if it didn't act fast. We’ve seen how quick the public can mobilize against networks, which is often followed by advertisers pulling out and boycotts of shows that ultimately hurt a network’s bottom line. Recognizing this, ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey issued a brief statement, saying “Roseanne's Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.” By drawing attention to its corporate values, ABC made it clear that racism has no place its its value structure, and that no matter how profitable a show is, doing the right thing is always the right choice.

Now, ABC could have issued a statement condemning Ms. Barr’s comments. Then it could have waited and eventually caved to pressure that inevitably would follow to either fire Ms. Barr or take the show off the air. It didn’t, and instead, it acted in bold, unequivocal fashion that put their values before profits -- and, perhaps, ahead of the show’s employees.

Some have pointed out that many actors, crew, writers, production staff and others on the show will lose their jobs alongside Ms. Barr as a result of her actions. It’s a vaid critique of what ABC did, and some will call it heavy handed. While we can’t be sure, we would guess that ABC and Disney did this arithmetic, and will likely offer financial restitution to those impacted in this relatively rare instance. There was a reputational calculus here, as well - ABC believed that the entirety of the blame for the job losses would also fall on Ms. Barr. And it appears they were right.

In a world where news travels at breakneck speed, corporations must be ready to respond accordingly. The failure to act and say nothing almost invariably causes more harm than good, and there is no excuse for not being prepared.