Up until recently, Michael and Heather Martin played elaborate pranks on their children under the username “DaddyOFive” on YouTube, earning them over 760,000 subscribers and millions of views. Their videos provoked outrage after online sleuths highlighted footage of the kids crying while their parents screamed at them, which some saw as child abuse. Now, a judge has temporarily taken custody of two of their children away.
Parents accused of child abuse ordinarily seek help from a lawyer and perhaps a family counselor or therapist. The Martins did both of those things, but given the extremely public and entirely self-inflicted nature of their situation, they have also hired a public relations firm that specializes in crisis management: the Fallston Group, a “global reputation company” based in Baltimore.
“Crisis costs four things: time, money, customers, and ultimately your career,” Fallston’s Chief Executive Ron Weinhold says in a video addressing potential clients. “The decisions you make today will be judged by many for years to come, so work with the Fallston Group to turn adversity into advantage.”
What the Miltons did is bad parenting at best and child abuse at worst, which seems like an especially sour lemon to turn into advantageous lemonade. The couple has been derided online and portrayed as villains — especially after one video, in which the parents spill what looks like ink on the carpet in their young son’s room, accuse him of making the mess, and scream obscenities at him as he cries and denies it.
The family initially defended the video and dismissed critics as “haters,” but another YouTuber, Philip DeFranco, brought more attention to the situation by digging into the DaddyOfive archive. He noted that the parents seem to pick on one child more than the others, and produced a montage of that child sobbing and screaming at his parents to stop. “It’s impossible for me to hide the fact that if you treat a child like this, I hate you,” he said in one video.
Many people have certainly rebounded from bigger scandals: Tiger Woods, Ray Rice, Paula Deen, BP. “Americans are very forgiving, as long as they know the person looking for forgiveness is truly contrite,” Weinhold and his co-author write in their book, The Art of Crisis Leadership.
First off, however, Fallston had to hedge its own liability; it’s no good if the crisis management firm gets smeared by association with its deplorable clients. Prior to this, the toughest Fallston client was probably the security company that accidentally hired an accused war criminal as a guard at Dulles International Airport. But with the DaddyOfive case, Fallston felt the need to get in front of any blowback with a statement that, of course, emphasized how sorry the Martins are. “We absolutely do not condone some of the content that has been posted to YouTube,” the statement says. “But under the circumstances, we did have an opportunity to positively influence a distraught family with our experience, instinct, resources and mentorship, particularly the children.”
Fallston Group did not respond to questions about how it will run the DaddyOFive rehabilitation campaign, and has been directing press inquiries to the Martins’ lawyers.
In Weinhold’s book, he offers some advice for people targeted by a wave of outrage: Call out bullies who are leading the mob. Don’t lay too low; quickly control the message “from the onset of the crisis” by speaking out with “credibility and balance” and “reframing your remarks.” Take responsibility for your actions, and “put your money where your mouth is” — if you’re Ray Rice, you need to enroll in rehabilitation programs, anger management, and donate to charitable organizations. And of course, apologize, and do it sincerely. “Apologies decrease litigation,” Weinhold writes.
Viral unpopularity is often hard to reverse, however. Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, is all about this phenomenon. There was Lindsey Stone, the woman who posted a photo of herself giving the finger at Arlington National Cemetery. She didn’t leave her house for a year and a half. Once she decided to rebuild, she hired a reputation firm, Reputation.com, to create a new internet persona for her that was as uncontroversial as possible. Reputation.com created social media accounts and websites, updated them regularly, and posted a flood of photos to drown out the infamous Arlington gaffe.
“Apologies decrease litigation.”
Another interesting case of internet outrage followed by rebuilding was Justine Sacco, who in 2013 tweeted a joke about not getting AIDs on her trip to South Africa because she was white, and proceeded to lose her job in public relations. She shut down her Twitter account, moved to Ethiopia, then attempted to reset her reputation once things had died down by meeting with Sam Biddle, the Gawker writer who initially surfaced and publicized her offensive tweet. Biddle wrote a blog post titled “Justine Sacco Is Good at Her Job, and How I Came To Peace With Her.” But when Ronson asked to meet with Sacco for a New York Times article, she said no — “Anything that puts the spotlight on me is a negative.”
The Martins have a much greater challenge than Sacco and Stone. They seemingly exploited their kids for YouTube views and did not at first understand why that was wrong, suggesting the need for some drastic resocializing in addition to reputation management. They posted an apology video on April 22 and removed all their prank videos from YouTube. Mike Martin hasn’t tweeted in over a week. Expect an eventual reemergence, but in the meantime, the remaining three kids in their custody are probably relieved not to be on camera all the time.