On May 17th, Buzzfeed released the first of a three-part series accusing self-help guru, Tony Robbins of sexual misconduct that allegedly took place in the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s. The article details a list of allegations that he propositioned, groped, and exposed himself to named and unnamed women.
Hours later, Robbins went on the offensive, attacking Buzzfeed in “An Open Letter to Buzzfeed Editors and Directors” posted on Medium . In it he said:
“Unfortunately, your organization has made it clear to my team that you intend to move forward with publishing an inaccurate, agenda-driven version of the past, pierced with falsehoods. It is intended to disparage me personally, my family, my life’s work, and the efforts of the millions of individuals around the globe who have taken this journey with me over the last 40-plus years.”
He claimed that Buzzfeed refused to speak with him, badgered the people they did interview and ignored those who attested to Tony’s character. He also linked to a video of one person who said her comments were taken out of context and mischaracterized.
He bolstered his argument by citing a 2014 report by Pew Research Center which cites Buzzfeed as “the least trusted news source” of them all. He then stated, “So it stands to reason that you are presently facing financial, organizational and management troubles.”
A week later, Buzzfeed posted a second article, “ Four More Women Have Accused Tony Robbins of Sexual Misconduct .” According to Buzzfeed, “A total of nine former staffers and followers have now recounted incidents in which Robbins made sexual advances or was naked in front of them — and eight of them said they were upset by his actions.”
On May 23rd, Buzzfeed published the third in the series — and final so far — entitled “ Tony Robbins Was Filmed Using Racial Slurs.” Enough said.
So was Robbins’ “go on the attack” strategy the right one? Did he effectively undermine Buzzfeed’s credibility enough to blunt the impact of the articles on his reputation and legacy? Did he unleash a counter-narrative, or just draw additional attention to an article that few of his followers would likely have seen, been surprised by or cared about?
And, here’s the most important question of all: Is this a strategy that others facing negative media coverage in the #metoo era should try?
First off, if you followed Robbins at all over the years, none of this is particularly surprising. This is a guy who publicly referred to the #metoo movement as a way for women to seek significance by “destroying someone else.” According to audio tapes obtained by Buzzfeed, in 2018, Robbins asked a woman who said her husband was physically and emotionally abusive to her, “Does he put up with you when you’ve been a crazy bitch?” After another woman at one of his events confessed to being raped, he allegedly told the crowd “She’s (expletive) using all this stuff to try and control men.”
He has said countless other outrageous things over the years. When he said, “my open-classroom therapeutic methods are not for everyone,” he wasn’t kidding.
For Tony, the usual rules of reputation management don’t apply. There was little risk that his “Open Letter” would make a story bigger than it otherwise would have been. He is a best selling author, has millions of adoring followers, a documentary on Netflix, and he is a celebrity in every way. Let’s face it, this guy has an island in Fiji.
The Buzzfeed piece was going to draw eyeballs no matter what. So there was no downside to getting his version of the story out, and undermining the credibility of the reporting. In fact, he successfully managed to get his counter narrative into many of the articles in other publications that covered Buzzfeed’s stories.
He also had the perfect foil. Buzzfeed has been criticized over the years for plagiarism , promoting advertisers in its content , and getting the facts wrong. Last year, Robert Mueller’s office broke its silence to declare that Buzzfeed’s reporting that Donald Trump instructed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress was wrong .
So, although Buzzfeed is increasingly becoming considered a legit news outlet, Tony wasn’t exactly taking on the New York Times.
Finally, before publicly responding to an accusation, experienced crisis communicators get the facts. Then they ask themselves if they will be drawing more attention to the controversy. Will this response trigger another round of coverage and social media activity and, as a result, raise awareness of the issue among people who otherwise might never know about it? Will Tony’s defense actually drive more traffic to the original Buzzfeed articles? In today’s world where more clicks result in higher rankings on Google search engine results, you need to do a cost benefit analysis before every response.
From Tony Robbins’ perspective, attacking Buzzfeed was a good strategy. But it’s not one to be emulated. For most people who have been accused of this kind of behavior by several people on the record, contrition is generally both the right thing to do and the best PR.
People who deny they did anything wrong, especially when they have been confronted by so many accusers with well documented allegations, run the risk of not only causing greater damage to their reputation, but doing irreparable harm.
Generally, when someone accepts responsibility, credibly explains what he has learned, and commits to seeking help and becoming a different person, there is an opportunity to recover and move on. That approach must be genuine and the person using it should also be aware of potential legal ramifications.
Tony may come out of this relatively unscathed. But, even he can only use this strategy once. If these allegations appear elsewhere and new victims emerge, all bets are off.
For now, he, and others who find themselves in his position, may be best served by heeding Mr. Robbins’ own oft quoted advice, “Take the opportunity to learn from your mistakes; find the cause of your problem and eliminate it.”