Motivational speakers aren’t always who they say they are. What can you do to protect your company from being duped?
Faith was the focus of Eric Ruluack Farrington’s motivational speeches. Farrington, the president of Eric Farrington Seminars, was also committing mortgage fraud and is now serving 11 years in federal prison.
James Arthur Ray was one of the most prolific motivational speakers in the U.S. until three people died during one of his retreats in Sedona, Arizona. He was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for negligent homicide. Now out of prison, Ray has relaunched his motivational speaking career, describing himself as a “renowned leadership advisor, motivational speaker, and guru.”
Then there is Dan Price, the CEO of Gravity Payments, a credit card processing company, who gained fame for taking a 90 percent pay cut and insisting all of his employees receive a salary of $70,000 in the name of income equality. As a result, numerous reality show producers contacted him about featuring him in a show, he said. No need to wait for that. He may be the keynote speaker at your next event.
There’s one issue. According to numerous sources, Price didn’t cut his pay – he increased it. He did raise his employees’ salaries, but it’s alleged he did it to avoid a lawsuit.
“Vetting a speaker has become much more difficult because of the internet. Remember, not everything you read online is true,” said Diane Goodman, president of Goodman Speaker Management. “That’s why event managers, and speakers bureaus, must take the time to ensure their speakers are who they say they are.”
It all began in April of 2015 when Price made national news by announcing his plan to cut his salary and raise the wages of all Gravity Payments employees to $70,000. Almost immediately, Price was on the cover of Entrepreneur Magazine and made appearances on The Daily Show and Good Morning America, where he was heralded as “the best boss in America.” He even landed a book deal and “Worth It: How a Million-Dollar Pay Cut and a $70,000 Minimum Wage Revealed a Better Way of Doing Business” was released in 2020.
Details quickly emerged that suggested his story was false. In a December 2015 article for Bloomberg, reporter Karen Weise raised questions about the story, suggesting that he was “writing his own origin myth one interview at a time” and hinting that the entire wage raise was spurred by Price to skyrocket himself to CEO celebrity status.
Seven years later, the media hype around Price has died down, but he is still getting speaking gigs at some of the top conferences in America. Most recently, this past March at SXSW 2022, where his bio described him as building his company on “the values of honesty, integrity, and transparency.”
What level of due diligence do event planners owe to attendees? When should they pull the plug and cancel a speaker? Goodman has found the best way to vet a speaker is to get references and speak with those people. According to Goodman, you should ask for at least three from recent engagements and call them – not just email them. “People are much more forthcoming by phone than putting something in writing. You can also call HR departments of companies to verify that someone was or is employed there,” Goodman said. “And the same is true to verify that someone graduated from the college or university they say they did. It can be time-consuming, but if there is any doubt at all, then it is worth the time.”
There’s no boilerplate answer to whether or not to cancel a speaker. It all depends on the unique circumstances of the situation. Corporate communications expert Jeff Ansell, president of Jeff Ansell & Associates, a media and crisis advisory firm, recommends not making a hasty decision. “Show organizers should assess whether the issue affects the speaker’s basic credentials and the message he is going to deliver to their audience,” he said. “You also need to take into account the type of organization that is hosting the meeting. A bank might be more conservative when a scandal or a lack of truthfulness taints a speaker. But a company like a fashion house might be okay with a speaker who seems a bit edgy.”
Goodman cautions that going ahead with the speaker once their credibility has become suspect can be dangerous. She had one client who had insisted on a particular speaker and vouched for their credentials which turned out to be bogus. “He was speaking about a company he said he had worked at. There was someone in the audience from that company, and they were suspicious. So they contacted their HR department and found out that he had never worked there,” said Goodman. “Lesson learned for me and for the client who had asked me to secure this speaker. It really opened my eyes to the fact that people are not always who they say they are.”