Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Kara Alaimo: Fox News' long overdue firing of Bill O'Reilly over harassment too late to salvage network's reputation
Alaimo: Message to Fox men? If you bring in money, network will go to great lengths to enable you to behave badly
On Wednesday, Fox News announced that Bill O’Reilly is fired. The decision was clearly an effort to repair its reputation after The New York Times reported on April 1 that O’Reilly and the network have paid out about $13 million to settle claims of “sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior” by his staffers and guests.
But for Fox, the public relations effort won’t work. It’s far too late to salvage the network’s reputation by removing “The O’Reilly Factor” host now.
What could have repaired the network’s image? To fire him when the allegations first came to light, rather than covering them up and paying people off. That would have demonstrated that Fox doesn’t have any tolerance for the abuse of women – no matter how powerful or lucrative the alleged perpetrator’s show is to the network.
The fact is O’Reilly’s program was number one in cable news. It generated more viewers and more revenue than any other program in the category, bringing in $126 million in advertising in 2015. So, Fox chose to prioritize money over morality.
The problem became a true PR nightmare for the network 18 days ago, after the Times story broke. It was especially urgent for Fox to address the problem forcefully, because it already had a reputation for tolerating sexual harassment.
Its former chairman, Roger Ailes, was accused of the same thing by multiple female employees, most famously anchor Gretchen Carlson, who extracted a $20 million payment from 21st Century Fox over her allegations that she suffered harassment and retaliation.
And Ailes? He left with a $40 million exit package last year.
So, facing the Times report on on April 1, there was only one smart thing for Fox to do: fire O’Reilly. But the network blew it again.
Soon, more than 50 companies under pressure from consumers announced they wouldn’t advertise on the show. This week, claims from a new accuser – an African-American woman who worked at Fox– that he called her “hot chocolate” generated a new round of devastating headlines.
Finally, after nearly three weeks of self-inflicted negative media coverage, Fox realized it needed to stanch the bleeding and announced that O’Reilly is out.
Does all of this send a message? Yes, it does – to the other men at Fox: if you make enough money for the network, it will go to extraordinary lengths to enable you to behave badly.
To the rest of the world, it also appears that Fox thought it was OK for O’Reilly to allegedly treat women this way. They only let him go when they determined it truly wasn’t tenable to keep him. That message speaks far more loudly than his firing.