Conan Makes Quintessential ORM Power Move


The Internet's Hero

There are five main steps to defusing a potential online reputation management or branding nightmare. They more or less go something like this:

  1. Control the message by explaining, in simple and honest terms, exactly what happened/ is happening.
  2. Don’t get emotional or look for sympathy. Just state the facts.
  3. Admit any wrongdoing, if applicable.
  4. Show grace and humor.
  5. Offer a resolution or plan of attack for the future to calm fears.

It’s been hard to ignore the black cloud hovering over NBC the past week. The whole network has been rooted in unrest as Jay Leno’s prime time show was canceled and whispers became loud rumors that everyone in the lineup would do a backwards shuffle – Jay would move back to the coveted 11:35pm slot, Conan and The Tonight Show would be forced out til the next morning at 12:05am, and well, let’s not even get into what happens to the Not Funny Jimmy Fallon or poor Carson Daly (yeah…he still works there).

But even all that was just rumor. The truth is, neither audience, nor talent, has any idea what’s happening. Both Jay and Conan are forced to awkwardly address the unknown in their monologues each night and all we get are tension-filled jokes that do nothing but make everyone feel uncomfortable. It’s like the network was waiting for us to pick sides.

Well, yesterday most of us did. We picked Conan’s.

Tuesday afternoon Conan O’Brien elected himself the adult in the room and spoke. And he addressed his fans and the network with such grace and honesty that the entire Internet fell in love with him. He won our hearts in such a way that the letter should be preserved as one of the best handled branding nightmares to date. That letter has probably saved Conan millions of dollars in his next contract.

Here’s the thing: Before yesterday afternoon, the network was just waiting for Conan to quit. They didn’t care about his fate. They wanted him to disappear and for Jay to take back his slot so everyone could pretend the original swap never happened. He had no leverage to protect himself.  Nothing to hold onto. With the letter, he does.

Conan’s letter to ‘the people of Earth’ was the perfect example of how pro-active ORM can change an entire conversation and earn brand affinity. The Team Conan Facebook page exploded with thousands of new fans as news of the letter was made public. People are now invested in his plight. Why? Because the way he addressed the public was honest, humble and presented Conan being a class act. Will that letter impact NBC’s decision? Probably not. Conan will probably still get screwed. But when they move Leno back and Conan nobly steps down, you can bet his offers have just skyrocketed, both in numbers and cents. People feel far more invested in what happens to him than they did 24 hours ago. Even if NBC doesn’t care about Conan, his audience does. They will fight for him. And more importantly, a huge spotlight was cast on the truth of what happened. NBC is now the villain; Conan is the hero. That’s how you save a brand.

If you want to see pro-active ORM done right, go read the letter.

Your Comments

  • Gil Reich

    Great post of course. Conan’s answer was immediate, direct, funny, positive, authentic, and relatively high road. But part of me says … of course Lisa likes it, that’s her MO too. I was going to ask you how you would recommend people who can’t be authentic and funny and direct at the same time how they should handle it (other than hiring a firm, which I think would be the wrong answer here) but I noticed the traits you focused on were honest, humble, and classy. And I guess everybody needs to be able to do that.

    • Lisa Barone

      The great thing about Conan’s response is that anyone could have done it. It’s not a stand up routine. He’s not cracking sparkling wit or being overly impressive. He’s speaking honestly, while also not inciting panic. He calms the situation down, inserts his personal quirks that people know him for, and he explains what’s going on. And I don’t think it’s just me who liked it. Polls last night showed that the Internet was pretty much swooning and making really big eyes at Conan. ;)

  • cory huff

    @Gill – If you can’t be authentic and show a little sense of humor, you probably aren’t the person that should be addressing the public, IMHO.

    This whole issue, starting with Jay moving to 10:00, is a complete farce. Someone at NBC needs to be hung out on the yardarm. It’s almost as if NBC execs don’t even use the Internet, because for the last couple of years, all I’ve heard is how much funnier Conan is than Jay (I disagree, but there I digress).

    Conan gets to take the high road because he’s the victim. This is very different than an ORM crisis started by your own mistakes. Conan gets to play to everyone’s sympathies. I’d be interested in hearing your take on what NBC should be doing right now to mitigate their PR disaster.

    • Lisa Barone

      I think NBC messed up by not speaking up first, to be honest. Would they have gotten the same hero welcome that Conan did? No, but they wouldn’t look like such jerks right now either.

      If I was NBC (or instructing them), I would have put out a statement that explained why things were originally moved around, how they were trying to create the best possibilities for their friends Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien and then played up the pressures their facing from affiliates who want to drop them and have now put them in a horrible, horrible position of having to choose between children. Right now people can’t even fathom why NBC did all of us…but there’s probably a story in there somewhere. One that could be spun to not make them look like jerks. Marketing and brand saving is storytelling. They had plenty of time to craft a good one.

    • Rhea Drysdale

      Quick thought – Conan didn’t have a PR disaster, but reputation management isn’t always about that. Sometimes you just want to strengthen your brand or understand what the public is saying about you. In Conan’s situation there were a ton of people that did not like him or were riding the fence about whether they wanted to watch him.

      When he took over The Tonight Show, they lost a huge viewership and it confused industry minds because they didn’t get absorbed elsewhere, those viewers just disappeared. That means they’re still out there waiting to see if there’s a reason to return. Conan doesn’t have Ripoff Report to deal with or sex scandals, but he does have to convince millions of viewers to watch him every night. How he handled the situation brought respect if nothing else and that can go a long way.

  • 4ndyman

    When you wrote “There are five main steps to diffusing a potential online reputation management or branding nightmare,” I assume you meant to talk about defusing the nightmare. Conan kept it from exploding, he didn’t spread it out over a larger area.

    But otherwise, a nice article. There’s talk that Fox is courting Conan for a talk show. I’d hate to see him go to Fox (would you want to add your name to this list: Arsenio Hall, Magic Johnson, Wanda Sykes, . . .).

    If Dave Letterman has ever considered retirement, now might be the time. I’d love to see Conan inherit yet another evening talk show from Dave, sticking it to NBC all the while.

    • Lisa Barone

      Oy. Typos continue to be the bane of my existence. Corrected. Thank you.

      Hahaha, I’m with you on the Fox thing. But at the same time, maybe Fox would be the network to finally “get” him? NBC sure doesn’t. I’d actually love to see Dave Letterman retire. That man is just not funny.

  • Rudy Lopes

    Damn, Lisa, I was just finishing up my own analysis of the Leno vs Conan debacle when yours showed up. (I covered the personal branding angle too, only you did a much better job of it.) I’d say “great minds think alike” but I’d probably be insulting at least one of us…

    • Lisa Barone

      Rudy – We’re both just not that original. ;) I just left a comment on your past – which I thought provided a fantastic overview of what happened. Thanks for including it here.

  • Crimsongirl

    “2. Don’t get emotional or look for sympathy. Just state the facts.
    3. Admit any wrongdoing, if applicable.
    4. Show grace and humor.
    5. Offer a resolution or plan of attack for the future to calm fears.”

    Good advice for many situations.

    I was just watching a clip from Bill O’Reilly on YouTube (I don’t get Fox News on TV) and among his criticisms of the current administration was the “unemotional response” to the Christmas Day terrorism attempt.

    Now, you can criticize the Obama administration for many things, but if there’s one thing I admire about them is that they don’t get overly emotional and panicky. It’s a sign of immaturity if you judge people by how much they cry or get excited in response to the ups and downs of life.

  • Vince Blackham

    I think he also showed a great deal of humility as well, which helps with gaining trust for your side. I love how he told us all “not to worry”, but that he’s been ridiculously lucky with what he’s done over the past 17 years. Guarantee that guy isn’t leaving TV for many, many years to come (this was case-in-point). Go Team Conan!!

  • Lori Bourne

    Love everything about Conan’s letter – dry, self-deprecating humor always wins the day. Not really related, but if you haven’t ever read Conan’s Harvard graduation speech, you must:

    Clearly, he is funnier than Leno has been or ever will be.

  • Data Entry Services

    Very good example. I hadn’t seen Conan’s reply until I happened upon it here. He did behave well. It’s the guys behind the scene that should have answer to the public.

  • Jim Rudnick

    to me the term “NBC TV executive” and “intelligent ORM” can’t be used in the same sentence, eh!



  • Kurt

    If you want to know how to squander goodwill, one need look no further than Jeff Zucker and the Execs at NBC. They are the ones who don’t understand the power of online video, and viral social media. They are still living in the glory days of “Seinfeld” and “Friends”. Betcha they still own some AOL stock.

    Jay’s fans wouldn’t have made nearly as much noise, if NBC had payed him the cash, and yanked him, without dislodging Conan.

    Conan “gets it”, even though he pretends not to, for the sake of comedy. Twitter Tracker concisely explained the bemusement that many experienced as a result of its popularity. I’m with CoCo.