skip to Main Content
Celebrating 24 years in business in 2021.
Roseanne Barr Racist Tweet Scandal PR Comments | DeWinter Marketing & PR

Crisis PR Rave: ABC & Ambien’s Handling of Roseanne Barr Racist Tweet Scandal

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In this crisis PR RAVE, I’m going to talk about the brilliant responses from Disney/ABC and Sanofi Corp, makers of the Ambien insomnia drug, regarding the Roseanne Barr Racist Tweet Scandal. In the world of crisis PR case studies, the way this PR crisis came down and how it was handled was textbook perfect. In 30 years of doing PR, I haven’t seen many crisis PR responses this fast, and this spot on. I give both these companies a thumbs-up RAVE for their crisis PR response.

Highlights of the Roseanne Barr Racist Tweet Scandal – Phase 1

Here’s how the Disney / ABC / Roseanne Barr PR crisis went down:

  • On Tuesday, May 30, 2018, in the wee hours of the morning, Roseanne Barr sent out a series of racist tweets attacking Valerie Jarrett, an African-American woman from the Obama Administration, along with falsely claiming that Chelsea Clinton was related to Billionaire George Soros. Specifically, the main tweet said: “If the Muslim Brotherhood & Planet of the Apes had a baby = Valerie Jarrett.”
  • 6 am, Pacific Time, May 30, 2018 – ABC executives woke up to find out about the racist tweets.
  • 7 am, Eastern Time, May 30, 2018 – Chelsea Clinton responded from the East Coast saying, “Sorry but I’m not related to George Soros.”
  • By 7 am, Pacific Time, May 30, 2018, ABC executives in Burbank, California were in phone conferences, with emails flying back and forth, too.
  • The 3 key executives were : Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney (which owns ABC); Ben Sherwood, the president of the Disney / ABC Television Group; and Channing Dungey, ABC Entertainment President.
  • By 7:30 am, Pacific Time, May 30, 2018 –  Roseanne Barr issued a public apology to Valerie Jarrett and announced she was leaving Twitter.
  • By 9 am, Pacific Time, May 30, 2018 –
    • ABC & Disney executives were discussing how to cancel the show.
    • One of the show’s producers, Wanda Sykes, went public & said she refused to be part of the “Roseanne” show due to the racist tweets.
    • One of the show’s stars, Sara Gilbert, tweeted that Barr’s comments were “abhorrent.”
  • 9:30 ish, Pacific Time, May 30, 2018 – Social media was lighting up with questions and anger asking why ABC had not responded.
  • 10:48 am, Pacific Time, May 30, 2018 – ABC issued a forceful, 1-sentence press statement quoting ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey: “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.”
  • Noon into the evening, May 30, 2018 – Within hours of having her show cancelled, Roseanne Barr got back on Twitter and loaded more than 100 posts. (So much for the promise of: “I’m quitting Twitter.”)

People say the world is speeding up, and the pace of how fast a PR crisis can escalate has also sped up. What was so mind-boggling about this PR crisis is the speed at which the Disney / ABC executives and PR team took forceful decisive action. The show was cancelled within HOURS of the whole scandal coming to light.

Back at ABC, insiders were providing comment and saying that people at ABC were really proud of how fast they acted and in such a decisive way.

Highlights of the Roseanne Barr Racist Tweet Scandal – Phase 2

Roseanne Barr Racist Tweet Scandal PR CommentsOnce the proverbial sh*t hit the fan, Ms. Barr tweeted an excuse and blamed the sleep aid drug, Ambien, for her lapse of judgment, saying: “It was 2 in the morning and I was Ambien tweeting.”

While all the behind-the-scenes PR discussions were taking place at ABC & Disney, the PR team at Sanofi USA, makers of the sleep aid drug, Ambien, also crafted a classic response laced with sarcastic humor that also blew up social media in a good way.

Here’s the response tweet from Sanofi USA to Roseanne Barr:

7:57 am, May 30, 2018 – “People of all races, religions and nationalities work at Sanofi USA every day to improve the lives of people around the world. While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”

Another terse but brilliant corporate response to an unfolding PR crisis.

Within an hour or two, the Sanofi USA tweet response generated:

  • 186,000 Heart Symbols on Twitter
  • 74,500 people were talking about their response

Highlights of the Roseanne Barr Racist Tweet Scandal – Phase 3

Once the initial scandal had been dealt with by Disney / ABC and by Sanofi USA, additional commentary poured in.

Result 1: ABC won the day and got many bonus points for taking a financial hit and cancelling the new Roseanne show, to do the right thing.

Result 2: Sanofi USA & Ambien got a ton of publicity for their product, and they got kudos galore for the humorous way they responded to Roseanne for blaming Ambien for her racist tweets.

Additional entertainment industry pundits also expressed massive admiration that ABC would take the stand that it did. In cancelling “Roseanne,” ABC cancelled a top-rated show that already had been green-lighted for a second season.

The general commentary was: “Wow. ABC put its money where its mouth is. Great job ABC.”

Roseanne Barr Racist Tweet Scandal – Crisis PR Learning Points

There are many learning points to be gleaned from this crisis PR scenario:

  1. The SPEED at which PR crises now unfold is within hours, not days or weeks.
  2. We can thank social media for how fast news (good or bad) travels.
  3. An age-old piece of advice from media training (learning to speak effectively with the media) still holds true: “Take a deep breath and THINK before you open your mouth, to the press or on social media.”
  4. Consumers are placing increasing pressure on companies to do the right thing.
  5. There’s power in taking swift, decisive action. This is why ABC is still getting kudos for the speed of its response.
  6. Thanks to the Internet and social media, companies can no longer hide, stonewall, and just wait for the PR crisis / problem to go away.
  7. As corny as it might sound, there’s real power in doing the right thing.

Obviously, there’s a difference between a PR crisis created by a notable public figure with zero impulse control, and a PR crisis generated for a business. But the best practices for crisis PR still apply:

  • When a PR crisis occurs, get the leadership team involved ASAP to discuss what to do.
  • Make decisions not just based on legalities, but also on what will happen in the court of public opinion.
  • Be prepared to move swiftly and decisively.
  • The best practice is to develop a crisis PR plan BEFORE a crisis occurs. By having a crisis PR plan in place in advance of an actual crisis, companies can speed the process of addressing the crisis, and developing an appropriate and timely response.

Thinking about putting a crisis PR program in place before something negative happens? Contact Denver-based DeWinter Marketing & PR in Denver, or call us at 303.572.8180, to craft a thoughtful, strategic crisis PR plan in advance of potential crisis situations.



Courtney DeWinter

Courtney DeWinter is the president & founder of Denver-based DeWinter Marketing & PR in Denver, Colorado. She is a marketing & PR consultant with 25+ years of experience in branding, marketing, public relations, websites & journalism.

Back To Top