Celebrities in Crisis: Is all PR really good PR?

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘Crisis’ is composed of two characters: One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” John F. Kennedy.

This quote pokes the bear in the great debate about Celebrity PR scandals, and as we move away from the archaic belief that “All PR is good PR”, it’s clear to me that one critical element of Public Relations remains; Crisis Management.  Feel free to disagree, but from my experience the two go hand in hand and every PR campaign should have an element of crisis built in, just in case the “What if?” situation becomes the “What now?” situation.

What has really grabbed my attention over the past year is the amount of crises I have seen in the celebrity world amidst the huge Harvey Weinstein scandal.

Harvey Weinstein has really piqued my interest in this area over the past and I along with the rest of the developed world have watched as the dramatic, complex, and undignified scandal unraveled before our eyes.

In case you missed it (or have been in a coma for the last year) back in 2017, Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood mogul always pictured at glamorous Hollywood parties pictured with many famous A-List stars was slammed across all media channels after a number of different women came forward claiming they were sexually harassed by the now former film producer.

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In the early hours of the scandal, The Weinstein Company released a statement to the media saying that they were launching an inquiry into the allegations,  which translated in PR language means “give us some time to try and come up with a wordy statement that doesn’t answer any of your questions but makes it look like we know what to do in this situation and has been picked apart by our lawyers to ensure limited legal liability.”

After 13 more women spoke out, celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and George Clooney condemning him, his lawyer resigning, his wife leaving him and the inevitable dismissal from his own company there really was no scope for any kind of crisis management plan. Weinstein could only deny the allegations but the mass effect the media coverage had on this huge scandal meant his reputation had no hope of a recovery.

The Weinstein case seemed to cause a ripple effect in the celebrity world and soon enough many PR practitioners representing many different celebrities, business people and even government officials were facing this unprecedented crisis.

Another case that caught my eye was The Spacey Scandal…

Kevin Spacey was one of Hollywood’s most decorated actors and personally starred in one of my favourite Netflix tv series- House of Cards.

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So, naturally when this crisis came out I was stunned.

A grand total of 30 men claimed that Spacey, made a sexual advance upon them dating back to 1982.  Kevin Spacey’s response?

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Personally, I found his response quite interesting in terms of crisis management. He doesn’t try to deny the claims like Weinstein, he also doesn’t admit that he did it. But he tries to protect his image by apologizing and revealing something very personal about his life. In terms of PR one could raise the question… is Kevin Spacey revealing his sexuality as a PR spin? Is he trying to deflect from the situation? Who knows. But, a common tactic especially for PR Spin Doctors is to bury bad news in bad news, so it could be argued that this is a tactical move.

Anyway, it’s not all about sexual allegations when discussing PR scandals in the celebrity world. Comedian Kathy Griffin faced a huge media crisis when a picture was released of her holding a decapitated head of Donald Trump (look away if you are squeamish).

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Her management of this crisis was completely different to both Spacey and Weinstein. In fact, she admitted she was wrong and explicitly begged her fans for forgiveness claiming she “went too far”. Interesting, but her career and reputation were still damaged, and she was pulled from a huge TV ad as well as having to cancel several comedy shows.

All in all, crises in the celebrity world are usually unprecedented, erupt suddenly with little time to figure out how to recover. PR has an important role to play in the world of celebrity, there are many different ways to manage the type of crises I have mentioned but no matter what, when stories are leaked in the media they are everywhere. Forever. Try as they may, it can be difficult for celebrities and top figures to comeback from these types of catastrophes.

So, can celebrity PR scandals be managed?  In my opinion, it depends. It depends on the context, the scandal, the fan following, the time, the circumstances and sometimes, just sometimes, these factors can create the perfect storm. They can be managed to an extent but evidently, PR teams cannot prepare for the types of crises that can implode on them out of the blue on a Monday morning.  Hats off to them for the effort!

Orlaith Strong is a Final Year BSc in Communication Management and Public Relations at Ulster University. She can be found on Twitter @orlaith_strong and LinkedIn @orlaithstrong