Lessons from the Top: How Celebrity Faux Pas Reinforce Long-Held PR Practices
May 12, 2020
May 12, 2020
As PR professionals, we painstakingly create stories, angles and talking points for our clients and their brands to stick to – messages that capture their voice and expertise, are relevant and thoughtful, and avoid treading on anything unsavory or tone-deaf.
Celebrities, essentially their own self-contained brands, typically have teams doing this same work: organizing photo ops, planning project launches or events, crafting messaging, and curating a social media feed that makes them relatable yet untouchable, personable but otherworldly.
Mandatory quarantines and the resulting separation of celebs from their teams have left prominent figures to their own devices with, uh, not great results. Let’s take a look at some examples of recent scenarios in which a publicist should have stepped in, and some important reminders to all of us working in PR.
In a now-deleted post, billionaire David Geffen offered well wishes to his followers from aboard a superyacht in the Grenadines reportedly worth $590M. Gloating about wealth comes across as distasteful even outside of a massive global event. Posted during the height of some regions’ outbreaks and casualties across the globe, this move was elevated from gross to insensitive and out of touch when you consider the tragic realities so many are dealing with.
Lesson: Tone is everything. Think critically before you publish to ensure that any posts don’t come across as callous or insensitive.
In general, celebrities should avoid spontaneous live-streaming without first consulting their publicist. Case in point: Vanessa Hudgens’ Instagram Live in March where she lamented the idea of a shutdown until July, saying “Even if everybody gets it, like yeah, people are going to die, which is terrible… but inevitable?” An obviously bad take, the star then posted on her Instagram Story claiming that the phrase was taken out of context; she eventually posted a retraction, taking responsibility for her inappropriate comment and vowing to listen to her followers and be more sensitive moving forward.
Lesson: Planning is paramount. Be diligent about social media practices, and be sure that any posts or social activities are vetted and approved by a comms professional.
Courtesy CBS News
While in quarantine, Madonna has taken to social media to share “diary entries” about how the isolation is impacting her and her family. Ever the controversial figure, a video of the star in a bathtub pontificating about the virus as “a great equalizer” quickly drew criticism from fans. Messages of equality can ring false, especially when they come from a custom marble soaking tub inside a multimillion-dollar mansion to an audience of fans who could be at a significantly higher risk of death or illness due to their socioeconomic status.
Lesson: Recognize your audience. What may feel relatable or relevant can often come across as patronizing to viewers.
Ellen’s popular talk show has gone virtual, changing locations from a sound stage to her Hollywood home, and its content has not shied away from confronting the new normal of at-home isolation. However, in a recent episode, Ellen likened her quarantine to “being in jail” – a remark that came out amid reports that prisons across the U.S. have experienced a rapid increase in positive cases among inmates. What was likely intended as a throwaway joke came under scrutiny as dismissive of the experiences of individuals who, according to one Twitter user, “can’t practice social distancing [and] don’t have enough water or toilet paper,” and will be more heavily impacted by the virus.
Lesson: Acknowledge your privilege. Making sure that your statements don’t look down on disadvantaged populations is key to ensuring your messages can’t be taken out of context.
This is a small, small glimpse into the ways in which celebrities’ brands are being mismanaged during this crisis – don’t get me started on that “Imagine” video or the solo video shot of celebrities like Priyanka Chopra clapping on her terrace – but these lapses solidify some truths that are universal in the PR industry.
There are ways to use your influence to positively impact the general public (shoutout to Lady Gaga and her collaborators on the “Together At Home” special), or to simply document your efforts to stay sane in a way that’s entertaining (Ina Garten’s massive cosmo, Patti LuPone’s basement tour and Kristin Chenoweth’s random operatic explosions are a few of my personal favorites.) Here’s to hoping that the rest of the celebrity stratosphere can take a few hints and use these lessons to set themselves up for success for the remainder of this crisis.