The numerous rape allegations lodged at legendary comedian Bill Cosby were compounded by Cosby’s public silence at the height of the scandal. If you’re inclined to follow rules, the don’t say “no comment” rule of crisis communications is a good one to follow. When public figures remain silent during times of crisis, the public has no choice but to form its own opinions. Whether or not those opinions are in the same hemisphere as the truth is irrelevant.


Public figures are no strangers to scandal, but what public figures are even more familiar with is botching their responses to scandals. In 2014 alone, we’ve seen a dozen public figures and major corporations blunder their way through scandals, making one mistake after the other and creating even more public distrust than the actual scandals generated. Uber, the NFL, Ferguson, Sony — the list goes on. From backtracking, to outright lying, to half-hearted apologies, mistakes abound during times of crisis.


Silence is one mistake that proves to be most fatal to careers. Cosby’s situation is, perhaps, the grimmest scandal of the year. Like many public figures before him, Cosby made the mistake of remaining silent at the onset and height of the crisis. Were he and his team hoping the situation would blow over? Or were they working behind the scenes to quiet the situation themselves? The public could only guess. As the allegations piled up and victims came out of the shadows on a weekly basis, the public began to make its decision. While hardly a unanimous decision, the self-appointed public jury convicted Cosby on all counts.


It’s human nature to defend oneself when wrongly, and even rightly, accused. In crisis situations, something must be said. Even if that ‘something’ is ‘I don’t know,’ it’s better than nothing. When the public is exposed to news of possible wrong doing by a public figure, the public expects a response. When that news is visual, it can be difficult to remove those images from the public’s mind. We saw a similar public response when the Ray Rice elevator video hit the web. We couldn’t get that image out of our minds. This is known as the drench effect, a theory suggesting that when an emotional stimulus is memorable enough, it can alter an individual’s attitudes and perceptions forever.


Bill Cosby Meme

Users on Facebook and Twitter generated hundreds of memes about the Cosby rape allegations (Washington Post)

The Cosby rape memes that went viral in 2014 created mass emotional and memorable stimuli. A timely statement couldn’t have erased those images, but it may have been possible to create a new narrative, with Cosby telling his own story, if only a brief one. Instead, Cosby sat in silence as he watched his long-standing supporters turn their backs. He watched as his long-awaited performances were cancelled. He watched as his alma mater, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, dropped him from all campaigns. Finally, and most significantly, he watched his life’s work crumble like The Cosby Show’s ratings in the 1990s. Unfortunately for Bill Cosby, and for the rest of us, life isn’t a sitcom, and we can’t recapture our glory in syndication.






What are your thoughts on Bill Cosby’s silence during the recent rape allegations? Leave your thoughts in the comments section, or tweet me @nataliepetitto.