Crisis Management: Paris Hilton & Michael Jackson – Celebrity Crisis PR: Crisis communications
Once upon a time, a reporter for STAR called to ask, “How would you advise Paris Hilton handle the controversy over the private sex tape of her that is widely available on the Internet?”
The tabloid was preparing a story on how the party-hopping young blond Hilton heir/celeb now starring in a Fox TV reality show should do damage control. After warning the reporter that I usually help companies not celebrities I suggested Ms. Hilton either 1) admit to someone like Barbara Walters that she ought to be more careful with her personal life, or 2) ignore the flap and move on.
A week later, while still pondering that brush with celebrity crisis control, an executive in a group to whom I had just given a speech, asked a similar question. “What would be your advice to Michael Jackson?” I demurred on the child molestation case that was pending at the time (and, of course, he has since been found not guilty) and said celebrities are not my expertise.
Nevertheless, the Hilton and Jackson questions were intriguing. Can such high-profile cases teach us something or are they mainly spectator sport? How do celebrities in trouble operate under the media microscope? How do the famous address accusations or outright lies or deal with personal missteps or serious mistakes? Do PR guidelines for corporations and institutions apply? Do superstars like Michael Jackson and celebrities like Paris Hilton pursue public relations as we know it or something else?
I have already concluded that celebrity crisis management resembles political campaigning. Public support is career oxygen; you MUST prevail. It’s is a zero sum game where ends justify means. Fighting may be good, conciliation bad. In celebrity world as in politics the question seems to be, “Are you a winner or a loser?”
Conversely, in corporate and institutional crisis management, reassurance and fairness matter. The public wants to know that you are acting in their best interest. Are you protecting them, their values or their property?
After watching the famous try to defend themselves, I see two primary strategies:
Undercut accusers/call out supporters. For example, almost immediately after Michael Jackson hired attorney Mark Geragos (and later dropped him), stories surfaced questioning the character and motivation of the child’s mother as well as the personal history of the child, and saying that both accusers once endorsed Jackson’s behavior. After considerable heat, the district attorney felt compelled to apologize for joking during his news conference announcing the Jackson charges. Former Neverland sleepover children talked of benign visits. Celebrity friends (Elizabeth Taylor) and Jackson relatives (brother Jermaine) backed him. Kobe Bryant too seemed to see the value of these tactics. A leaked story revealed that Bryant’s unidentified sexual assault accuser had entered a treatment center. Such stories planted doubt that could benefit an accused celebrity.
Attack! Attack! Attack! Superstars or rich celebrities have the dollars for a phalanx of lawyers. As unfettered as the Internet is, sufficient legal horsepower apparently can subdue websites spreading damaging or defamatory information and particularly harmful photographs. The Paris Hilton x-rated video was hard to find on the Web after about a week at a time Hilton lawyers were known to be in action. Unauthorized nude photos of other stars pop up briefly on the Internet only to quickly vanish. Outrageous articles too can be throttled. Tom Cruise told Larry King he had never lost a legal battle with those whom he said had written lies about him.
Being on offense obviously helps, but two less aggressive strategies are also available.
Apologize. If you are truly at fault, say you are sorry. Tears or regrets with Oprah or Leno won’t hurt. Hugh Grant did it after being caught with a prostitute and he moved on to an even more successful career.
Ignore it. Left alone, the Paris Hilton video controversy may actually put her more firmly on the celebrity map, or at least extend her “15 minutes.”
In the end, while attack strategies sometimes work in Hollywood, I think the rest of us ought to be wary of aggression as a PR tool. Pursuing peace is preferable and has fewer backlash possibilities, but I will admit that fighting may be your only recourse when all else has failed.