Fallon exposé makes case for HR playing a better role in crisis comms

The report offers several lessons for communicators when working across functions in a high-visibility role.

A look at the recent Jimmy Fallon scandal offers lessons for communicators. Fallon works in NBC Studios at Rockefeller Center, pictured here.

Sixteen current and former employees of “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” described the workplace as toxic in an investigative report published by Rolling Stone last week. Chief among the allegations is that Fallon is erratic, regularly undermining the contributions of staffers and lashing out at them, often forgetting his own notes and sometimes reeking of alcohol.

Sources claimed this was exacerbated by a culture where leaders and HR did not support employees or take their concerns seriously. In failing to do so, they enabled it.

The report offers several lessons for communicators when working across functions in a high-visibility role.

A culture of fear

The current and former staffers described an extreme amount of turnover in showrunners and staffers, creating a lapse in psychological safety that made everyone fearful for losing their jobs and compromised the mental health of employees:

“With an ever-changing cast at the top, employees say they had nightmares related to work and were in a constant state of fear… (f)our other employees say they are in therapy because of their experiences. Three people say they experienced suicidal ideation as a result of the working environment.”

HR protects the status quo

This turnover put producers in place who were not willing to challenge Fallon’s behavior, say no to him or validate employee concerns — even when Fallon was clearly acting irrational. One former employee said they did not report any incidents when they noticed some colleagues were fired after raising concerns to HR.

Another said that they sent a complaint to HR about a producer, which was followed up by an email HR sent to the producer denigrating the employee who complained (Rolling Stone viewed this email).

“That was super frustrating to me and kind of devastating because it felt as if I finally had someone on my side, and I quickly learned that was not the case,” the former employee told Rolling Stone. “Everything that I relayed to HR was then relayed to my manager, so it was not a safe space. It felt as if they were acting in the interest of one person instead of the interests of the greater whole.”

When that employee found another job and showed up to their “Tonight Show” exit interview, the producer they complained about was present at the meeting, causing the staffer to feel that they couldn’t be honest about their experience. This amounted to a missed opportunity for feedback.

Analyzing the apology

Fallon apologized to employees over Zoom following the report’s publication, saying that he didn’t mean to “create that type of atmosphere for the show.” Employees said the apology felt earnest, but no details emerged about further commitments or timelines to change the behavior detailed in the report.

“One of my big rules is that there’s no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ in an apology,” said Mike Paul, president and CEO of The Reputation Doctor. “And his very first word was ‘If.’”

Treating a situation as conditional when affected stakeholders already let you know the conditions and what they are feeling is a nonstarter for constructive comms.

When comms is present

The incidents detailed in this report, though extreme, occur in smaller organizations with less visibility every day. Employees who bemoan a lack of psychological safety and an absence of accountability from leadership are seldom going to stick around that long.

While this may seem like an HR issue, when those employees are empowered to speak externally about those experiences it becomes a high-risk, reputational crisis that falls squarely in the laps of communicators.

Because HR folks focus on regulation and compliance, those without the comms training won’t always consider employee concerns and risks with the same weight that they consider leadership’s preferences for the business — nor be empowered to voice those concerns. This makes the case for comms being in the room and in those discussions from the outset.

Emphasize emotion: The context that communicators provide to elements of risk is your greatest asset and something to remind other functions of.

“The solution for these types of crises is emotion,” said Paul. “Not a boilerplate best practices approach from legal. In every crisis I’ve worked on for 30 years, I always say in the first meeting, if you have an emotional crisis and you have a non-emotional solution at the table, it’s going to fail every time.”

Lean on data: When your internal stakeholders mainly understand risk from a regulatory and compliance perspective, comms will often be in the position of pushing back against HR, counsel, the board or even the C-suite with advice that they know will help the brand. In those instances, data becomes your best friend.

“You’ve got to quickly and completely give evidence, data, stories, examples that they’ve forgotten of others making the same mistakes and what happened—and then some good examples of those who are complete and how it helped fix it,” Paul said. “The key word is fix.”

In this instance, data could include reports of Fallon’s drinking that go back to 2016,  current and former employee complaints and turnover rates and public sentiment metrics after each new development occurs.

Helping HR collect and quantify these data points, then shape them into a narrative, can enable them to have a partnership with legal wherein legal empowers them, and trusts the color context that they provide around a potential crisis in wait.

That’s a win for HR and comms alike.


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