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A Rough September For Hollywood: Why Crisis Comms Matters

Pink filter over the Hollywood sign on the hill

An article from Monica Feig, EVP, Clarity and Georgia Bennett, Senior Account Director, Sefiani 

Crisis communications have become the norm in Hollywood over the last few weeks, with a rash of celebrities suddenly finding themselves battling waves of public backlash.

From Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis’ apology following their letters in support for convicted rapist Danny Masterson, to swirling rumors surrounding the divorce of pop star Joe Jonas and Game of Thrones actor Sophie Turner, there are lessons to be learned about how not to communicate when things go wrong. 

Prepare thoroughly before a crisis hits or risk publicly scrambling to control the situation.  

Some crises are completely unexpected and hit us before we know what’s happening. Then we have little choice but to respond to the situation in which we find ourselves. Others, however, are somewhat predictable. We can see where certain risks lie and prepare for them, or conceive that a certain decision may spark backlash and make plans accordingly. 

Take the case of Disney CEO Bob Iger, who referred to the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strikes for better pay as ‘very disturbing to me’ and their requests as ‘not realistic’ in a CNBC interview. Unsurprisingly, the comments drew significant heat given Iger’s $31 million salary. Whether Iger’s remarks were scripted or not, it was clear from the moment he spoke that a reputational crisis would be inbound. 

However, Disney did not appear to have been prepared for the backlash that followed and shortly after posted a role for a Vice President of Public Affairs. As reported by The Intercept, the role would include helping senior executives prepare for media events and interviews, while other job postings looked for prospective employees able to lead “crisis communications response efforts,” and a communications executive to help in “enhancing and protecting reputation”.

What we can learn: The best time to complete crisis communications planning, conduct stakeholder mapping, and prepare holding statements is before a crisis, not after. Being transparent about potential crisis concerns and having a clear protocol in place that defines who will respond to various issues and crises scenarios, as well as criteria and a timeframe to determine if a response will be given, allows spokespeople to move swiftly and effectively when a crisis rears its head. 

A crisis response should never rest–or appear to rest–on the premise that you did not think your decision would become public.

During media training, we remind clients there’s no such thing as an ‘off the record’ conversation. If it’s juicy enough, it will find its way to the public eye. Case in point, Kutcher and Kunis’ letters to the presiding judge in the Danny Masterson rape trial, vouching for Masterson’s character and referring to him as an ‘outstanding role model’. 

For many observers, the problem was not only that Kutcher and Kunis had written the letters in the first place–it was that part of their proceeding 58-second apology video contained the explanation that “they were intended for the judge to read,” which some interpreted as Kutcher and Kunis saying that they were not aware the letters would become public. 

What we can learn: Intent and interpretation are two completely different things, and we as communicators must keep both at the forefront of our minds when working through a crisis. Your client’s intent can not become the story when their audience has decided on an interpretation of the response. Allowing it to can result in immediate criticism and backlash. Every word in a crisis response must be carefully considered for how it could be perceived, including whether it could convey the impression that you’re only responding after being caught out.

Appearing to play offense with crisis communications is a high-risk game. 

Appearing to play offense with crisis communications is a high-risk game. 

The divorce of Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner has attracted a great deal of attention, and interestingly, much of that attention has been more closely focused on a perceived PR narrative around the divorce than the actual proceedings. 

Following a joint announcement of the decision to end their marriage, the unavoidable ‘anonymous sources’ that accompany many celebrity stories appeared to kick into hyperdrive. One was quoted in TMZ saying that Jonas had the couple’s two small children “pretty much all of the time” while Sophie Turner was in the UK, separated from the rest of the family. Arguably, this is unsurprising given she’s been filming a six-part ITV drama series there since May. Another anonymous quote read: “She likes to party, he likes to stay at home. They have very different lifestyles.”

These anonymous quotes led to global public backlash, with legions of journalists and commentators on social media platforms questioning why the anonymous sources seemed to be so focused on painting Turner as a bad and negligent mother, and Jonas as a caring and excellent father. Rumors began to swirl that the quotes were an attempt at a PR narrative by Jonas (or his legal team) to ensure favorable conditions in the divorce.

What we can learn: It is not clear whether that is the case, but one thing is certain–even the risk of appearing to play offense with crisis communications is a high-risk strategy, particularly when it taps into sexist, antiquated ideas about gender-stereotypical parenting. 

The road to crisis comms is paved with good intentions.

Occasionally, a reputational issue or crisis arises out of the best intentions. Following the devastating wildfires in Maui, two of America’s most long-standing popular figures–Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Oprah Winfrey–stepped forward with a joint $10 million donation and called on other Americans to join them in donating to the wildfire relief efforts. 

While this is deeply commendable, it inadvertently set off a wave of criticism. Given Johnson and Winfrey are reportedly worth a combined $2.8 billion, their appeal to everyday Americans to dig deep and donate was not well received by the public. Although a $10 million donation is nothing to sneeze at, critics on social media unfavorably compared it with the staggering combined wealth between Johnson and Winfrey. They have yet to comment in response to the criticism.

What we can learn: Silence is absolutely a strategic move in crises. In some cases silence is used as a power play–e.g. Sophie Turner–and in others, a purposeful pause to see if the newscycle moves on to other pastures. For two icons who have long lived in the public spotlight, their silence is a noticeably quiet reaction. 

While Johnson and Winfrey are arguably justified in declining to explain the details of their own donations, it goes to show that careful consideration should go into any announcement, no matter how initially well-intended it may seem. A little opposition prep goes a long way. 

Social media preparedness is critical, not an afterthought. 

Public intelligence should not be overlooked or underestimated. The majority of the above crises (and even those that weren’t mentioned in this blog) were driven by social media attention–posts that quickly changed public opinion and drove backlash. 

It wasn’t just the celebrities’ statements that were criticized but also their delivery. For example, Kutcher and Kunis, as well as Drew Barrymore, tried to appear more ‘relatable’ by dressing casually and posting from their homes. However, everything about the setting and publishing of their delivery only fueled the fire: Are they not taking this seriously? Was this a knee-jerk reaction? Previous press coverage in lifestyle publications also drove a public dissection of their delivery, detailing where on their properties the videos were shot and publicly questioning whether celebrities prepared for just these occasions with interior decorations choices that left them room to de-fabulous their lives.  

What we can learn: Social media should be a central consideration when developing a crisis communications strategy. It allows a person or people to be very intentional with a response with every detail considered, from the channel, to the type of post (video only, text only, combo), to the background of an apology, to allowing post engagement.   

Crises happen, but the truth is, many of them can be predicted in one way or another. Having a playbook in place for multiple scenarios is vital, along with an honest and fearless comms team who will be transparent in saying if a response is inappropriate in tone or out of touch in delivery. This month has been a wild roller coaster of crisis, but we’ve seen many of these situations before. All brands –whether a media personality or business–need to always be prepared to address crises. In situations where no news is good news, it’s better to have a plan in place for when the tables turn. 

If you’d like to learn more about Clarity’s crisis preparedness and management experience and crisis services, we’d love to hear from you! Feel free to reach out here.

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