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Underneath all the speech controversies, it's just business

By Todd Leopold, CNN
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Fri May 9, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Benham brothers the latest in controversies with wider implications
  • Advertisers and corporations don't like controversy, says consultant
  • Law professor: Flashpoints are indicative of how far we've come as a society
  • Should personal speech and public behavior be separate? One may leak into other

(CNN) -- Free speech has consequences -- especially when business interests are involved.

That's a lesson most recently learned by real estate professionals David and Jason Benham, who lost the HGTV show they were scheduled to host after a recording of David Benham's anti-homosexuality views emerged.

Should the Benham brothers have lost their HGTV show?

After the site Right Wing Watch published a post about the pair and posted a recording of Benham talking to a talk show host about "homosexuality and its agenda that is attacking the nation," HGTV dropped their planned show, called "Flip It Forward."

"HGTV has decided not to move forward with the Benham Brothers' series," the network tweeted after the post went public.

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The Benhams aren't the first ones to lose work over their words. Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned for life from the team's day-to-day operations and facilities -- and fined $2.5 million -- for racist comments that were recorded and posted online. Paula Deen became an ex-Food Network host after she admitted to using a racial slur. "Duck Dynasty's" Phil Robertson was suspended after his controversial comments on homosexuals were published, though the A&E show has stayed on the air.

Opinion: What happened to Sterling was morally wrong

Regardless of the platform, the personal, political and corporate have ways of getting entangled with one another these days -- particularly when corporations try to maintain very public reputations of welcoming diversity and inclusiveness, says crisis management consultant Eric Dezenhall.

"I defy you to go to a corporate meeting and not hear words incanted over and over again: 'diversity,' 'inclusiveness,' 'transparency,' 'corporate social responsibility,' 'sustainability,' et cetera," he says. "If you step out of the narrow margins on some of these issues, there's going to be a problem."

Once the controversy goes public, all bets are off, says Dezenhall, the CEO of Washington-based Dezenhall Resources. Though there's a popular perception that spin doctors can fix anything and corporations will steamroll opposition, the reverse is true, he says.

"Corporations are simply not set up to manage controversies," he says. "Contrary to what you see in the movies about ruthless corporations, when it comes to public opinion, corporations are extremely fragile. The people inside simply don't have the stomach for these kinds of fights."

'This is really about a shift in the market'

It's not a surprise that these issues have become such flashpoints, says law professor Suzanne Goldberg, the director of Columbia University's Center for Gender & Sexuality Law.

"We live in a society in which race and gender and sexual orientation remain contentious issues for many people. So it's not surprising that these clashes are playing out in very public ways, and in the market," she says.

In some respects, such recognition is a good thing, she adds. Society doesn't accept the kind of speech that would have been ignored, glossed over or even celebrated in generations past.

"This is really about a shift in the market away from tolerance of anti-gay and racist slurs. It echoes commitments that have long been part of our anti-discrimination laws, but the market has taken some time to catch up," she says.

But it's also indicative of how quickly such wildfires can spread in a 24-hour, socially active media atmosphere, says Dezenhall.

"The velocity and the intensity of new media is largely uncontrollable. Despite how heralded the spin-doctor industry has become, our effectiveness in most of these cases is more limited than anybody can possibly believe," he says. Race, in particular, is the "cyanide pill of scandal," he adds, which made the Sterling case particularly volatile.

However, that doesn't mean that the targeted person or business will be ruined after the smoke clears.

Rush Limbaugh was widely pilloried for his controversial comments about student Sandra Fluke in 2012. Though there were initial reports that the lightning-rod talk show host had lost sponsors, his show remains popular -- and advertiser-supported -- two years later.

Chick-fil-A was the subject of protests and counterprotests in 2012 after its chief operating officer, Dan Cathy, made statements opposing same-sex marriage. All the clamor didn't hurt sales, which were up 12% that year. The fast-food restaurant also surpassed KFC as the top chicken chain in the country, a position it still holds.

And Stephen Colbert took a hit from Twitter when an Asian-American activist Suey Park took offense at a joke made on the account of Colbert's network, Comedy Central, and asked that followers demand the network #CancelColbert. Colbert defused the controversy with a defense of Park's free speech rights, explained the context of the joke and the network's account, made a few cracks about the media coverage -- and the storm went away.

Reputations can make a difference, points out Dezenhall.

"One of the first things we look at with an allegation is, is it plausible and is it resonant," he says. Everything we know about Colbert suggests that the allegations against him were neither, so "we write it off."

Private words, public behavior

But, say supporters of the maligned, what about privacy? What about personal convictions?

Sterling's comments were made in a personal phone conversation. The Benhams say they keep their personal and business lives separate. Shouldn't we be allowed to spout off like Archie Bunker as long as we behave like Mahatma Gandhi?

Ellis Henican, a columnist for Newsday, suggested HGTV could have been more forgiving and let "Flip It Forward" go on the air.

"Do they have a legal right (to drop the Benhams)? Yes. Should we be cheering it? No, we should not," he told CNN's "New Day." "We ought to be big enough people that we can see people we don't agree with, let them fix their houses, help the nice people. What are we scared of?"

Perhaps a stain on the brand, says Columbia Law's Goldberg.

"The decisions in these situations have much more to do with companies trying to protect their brand," she says.

As for privacy, it's a challenging issue, one that's still being debated every time a private party photo or sorority letter goes viral. But, essentially, in the Internet age, privacy is a nonstarter.

"It's worth remembering that our activity online isn't in a vacuum. How people -- friends, employers, colleagues -- perceive us can be the sum total of our Internet behavior," Google's Daniel Sieberg told CNN last year.

Also, in our polarized sociopolitical environment, activists are looking for every edge. Even if a boycott fails to move its target, it can succeed in raising attention -- and money -- for the cause.

"Boycotts and public controversies have tremendous power to call attention to important issues," says Goldberg. Even the current protest against the Brunei-owned Beverly Hills Hotel over that country's move to Sharia law, which has resulted in several cancellations but has yet to prompt Brunei to change, has had some effect because it's raised awareness, she says.

Victims of controversy, fair or unfair -- companies included -- will often remain associated with those days long after they've passed. That's something they have to come to terms with, says Dezenhall.

"The goal is not to make people unremember, and the problem is, when you're dealing with clients, that's what they want," he says. "They have to understand the consequences of certain decisions."

The Benham brothers may end up at another network. They've had plenty of success in the real estate business, they're personable and handsome, and they obviously have a lot of support. An organization, Faith Driven Consumer, has started a campaign aimed at reinstating the show. And there are a lot of channels out there.

They hold no grudge against HGTV, the Benhams told CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront."

"It was too much for them to bear and they had to make a business decision," David Benham said.

That's the deal.

CNN's Lisa France and Mariano Castillo contributed to this report.

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