A Storytelling Lesson From World Wrestling Entertainment’s Darkest Chapter

On June 22nd, 2007, former WWE superstar Chris Benoit murdered his wife, son, and then committed suicide. Not long after, World Wrestling Entertainment would mass delete everything involving Benoit, leaving little evidence of his existence. I find it fascinating that we allow content marketing experts to talk a big game about telling stories, but rarely do those alleged experts cite anything beyond what their fellow marketers say. So today, we’re going to talk about a company that actually produces stories, and what you can learn from a difficult decision they had to make during one of their company’s darkest chapters.

Although WWE was placed in an extreme situation, the Benoit incident is not without precedent. In fact, we’re watching a similar situation play out now in the news with Aaron Hernandez, formerly of the NFL’s New England Patriots. Throughout the history of the NFL, there have been murders involving current and former players such as OJ Simpson, Jovan Belcher, Rae Carruth, and possibly, recent Super Bowl winner Ray Lewis. Now, imagine if the NFL decided to remove all the games involving those players from existence, including this year’s Super Bowl. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, right?

Although it may not be a safe assumption, I bet none of you have murdered anyone. So it’s not likely you’ll ever find yourself dealing with such an extreme situation as WWE did, but you may find yourself at a point where you have to determine if you should delete something that’s an important part of your story. The problem with making the deletion is that it looks like you’re sweeping the problem under the rug. The flipside being, if you don’t delete, it’s a point of embarrassment if not managed correctly.

Complicating matters is that the stories produced by WWE, like all NBA games, are a work of fiction. So although he wasn’t a major character within the WWE for most of his tenure, Chris Benoit did represent the company by winning the 2004 Royal Rumble and winning the world heavyweight championship at the main event for Wrestlemania later that year; and he did so under his real name. That means the line of separation between Benoit and his character is not as clear as it would be if he had used another name. Think about the trouble future Tennessee GOP senatorial candidate Glenn Jacobs, who performs for the WWE as Kane, would be in if he had done some of the stuff Kane has done as a character under his real name. As hilarious as the imagery of Kane running for senate may be, he’d also come with a lot of baggage which involves murdering his parents, kidnapping his fellow wrestlers, and routinely beating up baseball legend Pete Rose.

By erasing Benoit, WWE is erasing a good chunk of history within their fictional universe. This creates a black hole where his and other wrestlers storylines once existed. And since the true wealth of the WWE rests in its possession of the world’s largest video library of professional wrestling, creating a near limitless resource for DVDs, merchandise, retrospectives, and repurposed programming, you can see where creating a black hole could represent a problem for the company and its shareholders. Especially if this decision to delete a wrestler established a precedent that would be followed and expanded to include performers who did things the company, its shareholders, or the public frowned upon. Because they’re not only deleting the offending party, you’re also deleting the other wrestler’s match as well, which limits the exposure that wrestler has, hampers his or her ability to sell merchandise (which is how WWE determines which wrestler to put their efforts behind), and damages one of the key assets of the company.

You should not do what WWE did. It’s difficult to fault WWE with their decision in the specific instance of Benoit, and I don’t fault them from a personal standpoint. But from a storytelling perspective? It’s not a decision you want to make. Even I embraced the time I worked as a Mall Santa to make ends meet during a particularly difficult time in my life. If you ever encounter a problem with the story you’re telling the public, acknowledge the problem. If you’re responsible for the problem, explain how the problem occurred and how you’re going to fix it, then fix it and talk about how you fixed it. If you didn’t create the problem, and the professional complainers or the media are creating a circus out of it, ignore them. The second something else occurs that’ll generate pageviews and ratings, they’ll go away.

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