Guest Writer:  Jan Johnson

The Tweet read, “If a girl is drunk, is it ok to have sex with her?  Reply yes or no to @drphil #teensaccused.’   It was deleted almost as quickly as it was posted, but the “ill-advised” question posed by Dr. Phil McGraw (or his team) drew understandable outrage. And the impact of this mind-blowing social media misstep lingered long enough to make it into this week’s edition of Time magazine.

What went wrong?  The show issued a statement saying the tweet was intended as a “research question” that would “invoke discussion leading into a very serious show topic.”  But the 140-character rigor seemed to reduce rape to a yes or no question—and without some critical framing of the intended message, this “poll question” turned the normally sympathetic, avuncular “Dr. Phil” character into a misogynistic monster.

Crisis Communications 101

Did the show’s representatives do anything right?  Well, for one thing, they deleted the post and credited Phil McGraw with doing so personally.  They also offered a “sincere” apology and noted that Dr. Phil was “upset” by the misstep.  And to dial it back a little, there’s no evidence that Dr. Phil himself was the author of this oh-so-hurtful query.  So far, however, we can’t find any news story anywhere in which the good doctor himself is quoted expressing his own appalled regret, if such does exist.

Critics are right to suggest that more needs to be done, maybe a talk show episode demonstrating the unspeakable pain that rape victims experience.  And maybe that very visible advocate of sensitivity to others needs to make plans for some internal sensitivity training to keep his staff from going off the social media rails ever again.