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Three Lessons from Bill Cosby’s Silence

Bill Cosby, once one of the most beloved TV sitcom fathers, tried to remain silent when decades-old allegations of rape and sexual assault resurfaced in the media on Saturday. But his silence reverberated through the media’s echo chamber, spreading more widely with each passing hour.

Cosby only shook his head and said nothing when first questioned by NPR reporter Scott Simon about allegations he drugged and sexually assaulted women in incidents dating back to the 1960s. His silence became the news in yet another indication of how “no comment” rarely works for public figures or public scandals in today’s 24/7 news cycle.

Fair or not, a no comment or silence in the face of damning allegations is often perceived as an admission of guilt. So what could Cosby have done instead? Here are three lessons from Cosby’s current crisis:

  1. Be prepared for the hard questions. Cosby and his wife were seeking publicity for the donation of some of their art collection to the Smithsonian. Seeking coverage of such positive news is likely to trigger some tough questions because reporters don’t want to serve as a celebrity’s PR machine. Moreover, the allegations surrounding Cosby’s past behavior had resurfaced when a video of a comic’s standup routine about the charges had gone viral. Cosby’s publicist should have known he could face some hard questions and had him ready to respond on NPR.
  2. Say what you can say. After Cosby’s silent response, his attorney issued a statement, saying: “Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment.” Cosby could have provided an answer along these lines. The statement is missing the denial most would like to hear from Cosby. But it at least tells the audience that the allegations are extremely old, and it asserts they were discredited.
  3. Get the right answer the first time. You don’t want to have to backpedal and correct. That only gives the story longer legs as reports on the correction add another day of coverage. In Cosby’s case, a second statement appeared today on the website from his attorney and the attorney for one of the women who claimed Cosby sexually assaulted her. It said: “The statement released by Mr. Cosby’s attorney over the weekend was not intended to refer in any way to Andrea Constand. As previously reported, differences between Mr. Cosby and Ms. Constand were resolved to the mutual satisfaction of Mr. Cosby and Ms. Constand years ago. Neither Mr. Cosby nor Ms. Constand intends to comment further on the matter.”

After three days of reeling from the charges, Cosby and his team are starting to rally support, which is probably the best they can do at this point. Whoopi Goldberg spoke out for him today on “The View.” Other supporters will likely join the discussion, raising questions about the veracity of the allegations. But at least one of the women claiming he sexually assaulted her is making the talk show tours, and the ongoing debate will only increase the knowledge of the allegations at exactly the time Cosby and his wife were seeking to solidify their legacies as philanthropists.

What other lessons can be learned from Bill Cosby’s response to these allegations?

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