Creating a reality TV drama that exploits the Amish Rumspringa may have been my first major sign that Discovery Communications was walking a precarious line between educational programming and sensationalism. Rumspringa is the term for the time period when teens “break Amish” to explore life outside their faith before (ideally) returning to the church and their families. It’s an intensely personal decision made by kids who have little idea about the modern world, or what it means to put their lives and actions on television. I grew up around the Amish in Michigan. Their presence can be divisive, yet most understand the very private lives they lead. Out of respect, I have never so much as taken a picture of their farms because that is what they wish. Then came Amish Mafia on the Discovery Channel. And (ugh) Here Comes Honey Boo Boo on TLC. Gross.

Then, Megalodon — when the Discovery Channel took the bold leap from unabashed distastefulness to downright betrayal. Creating a mockumentary about the near-discovery of an extinct species of shark just to draw eyeballs for their years-running Shark Week was tasteless at best. How many people sat in front of their television for this show, fully bought in and clueless? 79% did. Ouch.

Wasn’t the channel created to bring science into the mainstream, to demystify and build excitement about science and the world for millions of kids and adults? Sure seems like it’s done just that. When before the Discovery Channel would millions of people get excited about a week of shark education?

The  anticipation of Shark Week has steadily and impressively grown viewership. 2012 set a record of 21.4 million total viewers. The Megalodon episode this year commanded 4.8 million. Fans are intense about Shark Week. They dress up (and dress their pets), create videos, DVR episodes, host viewing parties and ravingly use social media to share and discuss during the broadcast. So why the need to deceive?

What really gets me is that megalodon was real. We have scientific evidence. A retrospective on the now-extinct shark would have been worthy of a premiere slot in Shark Week. To take this unethical step in programming baffles me.

And now the Discovery Channel finds themselves in the contentious position of responding to explosive backlash. Not that they’re even trying — they haven’t even offered an apology. As a result, nobody wins. Given so many viewers were fooled, they will have a hard time shaking this off.

As a communications professional, I cannot understand how this happened. How was this decision made? It’s not as if it was an accident. It was carefully thought out, produced and designed. It was decided months if not a year or more ago. It was a long time in the making. Which leads me to…

Three Cardinal Rules for Communicating with Raving Fans

  1. Be Honest & Transparent. When you’re dealing with an audience that has organically grown into a raving base, it demands transparency. Shark Week kicked off in 1987. They have earned a remarkable amount of trust over those 26 years — enough that people believed their Mega-lie. It’s the breakage of trust that stings so badly. Companies who build the trust have to keep it. Like any good relationship, that is achieved and maintained by being honest and transparent. A single fault and the commitment will forever be questioned.
  2. Engage Your Audience. Make them feel like they are a part of your success. Bring them into the circle of trust, praise their involvement and be active with them. Shark Week is a great success story in building fan involvement. While it hasn’t necessarily been overtly nurtured, it certainly has never been squashed. For many companies, just learning to relinquish some control is a battle. This is a lesson in the payoff of doing so. Shark Week has also embraced their fandom by not only giving the fans latitude, but also by creating new ways for viewers to get excited and involved through social media. Quick Service Restaurant Chick-fil-A offers another great example. Their very first Facebook presence was actually created by a fan and employee, not by the company. Rather than snatch it away, they stood back at watched. Eventually they reached out and worked with her, helping her to grow the presence, only taking over when they were both ready.
  3. Learn from Mistakes. People make mistakes. So do brands. What’s important is that they learn from them. This week, my son’s best friend said was telling me about a neighborhood kid, “He keeps getting in trouble for the same thing. Over and over again. Seriously, when will he learn?” Exactly. Wise words from a 16-year-old. Discovery Channel pulled a similar stunt last year with Mermaids: The Body Found. Though in this case, they did unequivocally state that it was fiction at the close of the program. And, while most people know mermaids never existed, there was still some outrage. It should have been a warning. They didn’t heed it. If they’re smart, Discovery Channel will issue an apology this time around. Work hard to regain trust. And never do this again.

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