At this point, most everyone has heard or seen the unfortunate occurrence between Chris Rock and Will Smith at the Oscars, so I’m not going to bother summarizing. (If you’re interested, here’s a link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_Smith–Chris_Rock_slapping_incident)
You’ve most likely already heard more opinions than desired, too, so I’m going to try to keep my personal two cents out of the conversation (though I apologize in advance if I’m not wholly successful on that front). I’d like to take a quick look at the situation from a personal branding perspective.
When your name and face are a brand, everything is harder. There’s no time for meetings or extended deliberation, because every public word you say and action you take contributes to the ever-changing mold shaping your brand.
Prior to the Oscars, Will Smith had done a pretty remarkable job. He started his career chanting, “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” as the Fresh Prince with DJ Jazzy Jeff. I smile feeling a little silly even typing these collections of words, though as a child of the 80s and a teenager of the 90s, all these phrases rolled right off my tongue.
Will Smith managed to use this start in his career as a springboard to eventually become a distinguished musician and actor with a slew of awards and accolades. For people of my age, we grew up with the Fresh Prince and had the pleasure of watching as he evolved into something extraordinary. Talented. Accomplished. Respected. Honorable. Now my children (12 and 14) are also fans . . . thirty-ish years since I was their age and getting jiggy with it. Now, I’m feeling old as I type.
Anyway, I was at an extended family dinner when someone had caught the scene live. He recounted the events for everyone, and the general consensus among our group was “good for him” (meaning Will Smith). Having only a quick summation of the events and my faith in a strong personal brand spanning most of my life, I was inclined to believe Will Smith was in the right, too. However, my 12-year-old son, who sometimes struggles with his own big emotions, was in the room, and the support just felt wrong. I said (thinking mostly of him but in response to all the vocal supporters): you just never know in those situations . . . when your emotions are pounding inside of you and urging you to act . . . whether those actions will ultimately be the “right” reaction. My son wasn’t actively involved in the discussion, so I question what (if any) of the conversation sunk in, but I do know I heard Will Smith cursing at Chris Rock echo from his phone numerous times in the days that would follow.
Thinking before acting means inaction in the moment, and I understand that’s dangerous territory with possible repercussions as serious as reacting incorrectly or inappropriately. With my son, I’m going to stick with inaction being the better bet. For an adult whose every action (or lack thereof) is reflecting a brand, my suggestion would be this: take 30 seconds and evaluate the situation using the “newspaper test.”
Famous billionaire Warren Buffett, whose personal brand is near irreproachable, encourages his hundreds of thousands of employees to think of two measures before acting: first — legality; then – transparency. If illegal, stop there. If legal but still questionable, think about the situation being described by an intelligent though unfriendly reporter in the newspaper the next day and being read by family, friends, and neighbors. If you’re comfortable and confident with that visualization, you’re probably ok.
Right off the bat, Will’s intended actions would fail the newspaper test since assault is illegal. His was a no-brainer when using that measure. If you personally encounter a situation and are still unsure after using this practice, Buffett says, “it’s out.”
Chris Rock is obviously also a very public figure with a personal brand of his own. Watching the incident playback, he says very little after being slapped and appears almost contemplative after Smith screams at him for the second time. He mutters quietly while laughing, seemingly having thought of a funny comeback, but he makes the decision to not engage and moves forward. DAYS after the occurrence, he tells his stand-up audience: “I’m still processing” and promises to react publicly at some point in the future. Chris Rock has tread very carefully. While his original comment was extremely insensitive, his reaction (a conscientious, temporary inaction) seems to have benefitted his brand.
In closing, I would suggest we all deserve the luxury of a moment. When confronting a challenging situation, feel your feelings and then picture yourself reading the newspaper the next day. Happy branding. 😊