As a PR firm that works with clients on reputation management, we’ve had a hard time averting our eyes from the train wreck last week at the Tiburon Conference.
Industry media blew up with news of celebrity advisor Ken Fisher’s lewd and off-color remarks while being interviewed on stage at the off-the record Tiburon conference. Tibruron managing partner Chip Roeme, who was on stage with Fisher, ignited a second day of news coverage with a formal apology. While we were far from the Tiberon conference and didn’t directly witness Fisher or Roeme’s response, it does not keep us from offering a few lessons from this fiasco.
If you missed the story, Alex Chelekian, a financial advisor and conference attendee, posted a video that recounted what many took to be Fisher’s sexist and offensive comments while being interviewed by Roeme. Several others in attendance confirmed the story, breaking the conference’s secrecy rules.
My colleague Greg Joslyn’s blog highlights what we’ve told clients for years that your comments on stage at a conference are “on the record” even if you are told otherwise. We also thought it might be helpful to look at Roame’s response (see coverage here). Was it sufficient?
We’d give it a mixed grade with some important caveats. The biggest is that by all accounts he should have said something from the stage immediately after Mr. Fisher’s inappropriate comments. How? By calling out the offensive language. For example, he might have said, “Before we continue, I need to ask you to refrain from using sexist and offensive language. We expect all speakers to show appropriate decorum.” Period. Move on. While he made this point in his written response, his lack of action from the stage, in our view, was a mistake.
But we realize how hard this can be when you are watching a train wreck happening. So the next best thing was his announcement the following day that the offending speaker would not be invited to speak at future conferences. His comments pointed to industry-wide behavior that needs to be more inclusive. While he didn’t name Fisher as the offending speaker, this was still a good step.
Roame also sent a letter to Tiburon conference attendees addressing the matter. In it, he pointed to Chalekian’s bravery. “Alex Chalekian, who I do not know well, should be commended for having the strength to go public Tuesday night with his views of offensive behavior. While Alex did technically violate the Tiburon CEO Summit media policy, he recognized that the issues of dignity, respect and inclusion are more important than the Tiburon CEO Summit media policy, and he took action.” Well said.
Roame concluded this letter by expressing his irritation at how he was portrayed in the news coverage: “I am disgusted to be included in phrases referring to old boys clubs. Tiburon is the opposite. I have worked tirelessly to try to find women speakers and encourage women attendees at the Tiburon CEO Summits.” We are already squirming, but he continues, “Given that we target CEO attendees, finding title-qualified women (and minorities by the way) is a tremendous challenge in the wealth & investment management industry. We work endless hours every six months on this same issue. We have held 37 Tiburon CEO Summits semi-annually so we have been fighting this battle for 18½ years.” Now we wanted to shout, “stop already!” Not only did he appear thin skinned and blamed journalists for their coverage of this story, he just pointed out his organization’s failure to achieve diversity at Tiberon and implied that there are few qualified women attendees!
Had we had a chance to edit this letter, we might have suggested he simply say, “We hope this unfortunate event won’t take away from the important progress we’ve made. Tiberon has worked tirelessly to find women speakers and high caliber women and diverse attendees. We will continue to work hard to create an inclusive culture for all.”
While the news will die down, we suspect Roame will continue to face questions for some time about this event. We’d encourage him to craft a concise response and create a plan to move beyond this.