Sex in the City: Could Crisis Management Help The Zumba Scandal?
By Dennis Bailey, president of Savvy Inc.
Several people have asked me about the Zumba dancer in Kennebunk who is charged with operating a prostitution racketout of her dance studio, a unique crisis management case if there ever was one.
The story has received worldwide media attention, generating headlines like "Kennebunkmates." And it doesn't look like it's going away any time soon. Supposedly there's a list of more than 100 'Johns,' perhaps including some well-known politicians and public figures, who received services from the Zumbainstructor and are about to be charged. Some of the names have already been divulged and include a former mayor and a high school hockey coach. The entire list will eventually become public and some newspapers say they intend to print it. Even if they don't, you can bet the names will be all over the web.
It's a unique case, for many reasons. Quaint, conservative Maine town, rocked by scandal, a 29-year-old attractive fitness instructor with a double life, a client list that might include some powerful public figures. Add to that her "business partner," a middle-aged insurance salesman who may have been secretly collecting information on the clients for who knows what.
Most of all, though, it's a story about sex, and it's turned us into a nation of creepy voyeurs, anxious and on edge to find out who among us did the dirty deed. Cheap titilation, I guess. And according to news reports, many of the encounters between the Zumba dancer and her clients were allegedly videotaped, and those sex tapes could also become public. (I'm not really sure why the press continues to say "allegedly" since some of her videos cab be easily found online.
Anyway, the case has all the steamy elements of a modern day Nathanial Hawthorne story. I see a movie or book deal here.
So can crisis management help the hapless Johns who are surely going to face embarrassment and scorn, along with the wrath of their families, when the list is made public? Is there any way to mitigate the media cacophony and the resulting damage to their names and reputations?
It's a tough one.
There was no way the Johns could have seen this coming and prepared for the possibility of being publically humiliated. There's no crisis communication plan that I know of that tells you what to do if ABC, CBS, CNN and just about every other national media outlet suddenly become interested in your sexual liaisons. And why would there be? Police rarely arrest or even name the Johns in a prostitution case. Most hookers are busted by cops working undercover. Even former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who was caught quite literally with his pants down, was never charged with a crime.
And in Maine, engaging a prostitute is a Class E misdemeanor, the lowest category of crime, similar to a minor traffic violation. It's punishable by a small fine and no jail time (if it's a first offense). Normally, the news media don't get too agitated over misdemeanors. You wouldn't see CNN satellite trucks parked on Route 1 in Kennebunk for the prosecution of a litterbug. But this is not your typical misdemeanor case.
In most crisis situations, I advise complete disclosure. Get out in front of the story, tell it all before someone else does; apologize, ask forgiveness and move on. But this case has extenuating circumstances. Innocent people are involved, like the wives and children of the Johns who also face humiliation and embarrassment from disclosure. It's kind of like when your wife asks, "Do these pants make me look fat?" It's a situation when openness and honesty might not be the best policy, especially when other people's feelings are at stake.
I once had a very prominent businessman come to me who got involved in a messy affair. His mistress ultimately broke it off and hired a lawyer who was threatening legal action if the businessman didn't fork over some money for damages. (I'm leaving out some critical details here to protect his identity). He wanted to know what to do. I said he had two choices, neither of them very appealing. Number one, he could essentially give in to blackmail and pay the lawyer and his client what they were asking and hope the whole things goes away. He didn't seem to like that option, so I gave him a second choice: go home to your wife, tell her all the sordid details and beg for her understanding. Then in the morning, the two of you will hold a news conference where you will again confess your sins, explain that you're not going to give in to blackmail, and say that because your wife forgives you the public should too. Maybe, just maybe, the news media would focus on the blackmail instead of the naughty bits and he would be seen more as a victim than an adulterer.
The businessman thought for a minute, considered what it would be like to lay out the story to his wife, and said, "No way." (The case never made the news so I assume the payout was sufficient.)
The point is, there are often times when the client just can't handle full disclosure.
So another option in the Zumba case would be appeal directly to the editors of Maine newspapers and TV news stations and argue that there is simply no news value in ruining the life of a private citizen who has a right to privacy, even when committing a misdemeanor. And bring your lawyer. The rule for the news media should be that if you don't routinely print or broadcast the names in misdemeanor cases (and most newspapers and TV stations don't), there's no justifiable reason to start now. This won't work if you're a public figure. The reason why the press couldn't resist reporting on Eliot Spitzer's case was because it revealed a brazen level of political hypocrisy. Spitzer had signed laws cracking down on the very prostitutes he regularly visited.
Appealing to the newspapers for fairness might keep the names of the Johns out of traditional media (although even when the Portland Press Herald carried an article saying they weren't going to print the names, they told their readers where to find them). But it probably won't keep the names off the Internet.
The final suggestion would be for one of the Johns, or maybe a group of them, to outwardly question why this whole story is such a big deal in the first place. The public doesn't really like or trust the news media, and people would probably support someone who is willing to stand up at a news conference and make the case that he's being publically crucified for a minor infraction just so the news media can sell more papers and get higher ratings. What happened may have been wrong, but that's between him and his family and shouldn't be anyone else's concern. We gave up public floggings centuries ago. And why are the police even bothering to spend time and resources on what amounts to a victimless crime between consenting adults? Is justice really being served?
Of course, the John would have to admit his indiscretion, and he might not want to become the poster-boy for legalized prostitution. But maybe the story would be turned against the news media and the Johns might get some sympathy instead of scorn. Maybe.
Other than that, the Johns will likely get double what they paid for, both literally and figuratively. But they can take some solace in the fact that these things do pass. It will blow over - at least until the movie comes out. EvenEliot Spitzer is now the host of his own TV show. Shame doesn't seem to linger very long these days.
Do you have any other advice? Anything else the Johns could do to get control of this wild story and dampen the negative fallout?
And click below to download our free eBook: Eight Reasons Why Every Business Needs a Crisis Communication Plan. Because you just never know when a CNN truck might be parked outside your office.