By Richard Weiner
Got a problem? Go into rehab. That’s the advice de rigeur that many public relations counselors offer to troubled clients.
Can a short-term stay in a rehabilitation center really change serious addictions or is it just a way of dropping out of the public view? These days, the paparazzi and the gossip media are adept at finding celebrities moments after they have checked into Betty Ford and other rehab centers.
Crisis communication is the subject of many books and articles. A now-standard procedure for companies and organizations is to prepare a detailed plan for use in an emergency. Presidential candidates will be spending millions this year on public relations and advertising. Do they have a crisis plan?
An entertainment celebrity is a special kind of client for a PR firm. Young “nouveau fame” celebs, especially the “partying pack,” often refuse to accept counsel and look to their PR people to get rid of negative publicity. Indeed, a few PR firms are known for dictating to magazines cover articles that are totally favorable. However, it’s impossible to control the media frenzy when a major crisis erupts.
I confess that I do not have a panacea. If I did represent an entertainment celebrity, I would try to start with a candid discussion about proper behavior and what to do if a problem arises. I also would prepare a detailed backgrounder that is not puffery. I also would try to explain what’s wrong with the adages, “I don’t care what you write about me as long as you spell my name right” and “Any publicity is good publicity.”
Companies must be prepared to deal with rumors, gossip and crisis events. The plan should start with a CEO who is immediately available to tell the truth to employees, customers, shareholders and other publics. Elementary to PR people but usually not to entertainment celebrities.
Crisis communication expert James E. Lukaszewski told me that buzz, which is inherent in becoming a celebrity, is a potent marketing tool. Bad publicity may not be as toxic to a celebrity as it is to a company, nonprofit organization, government agency or other entity. The celebrity world has its own rules, says Lukaszewski, and the public can be forgiving. Mel Gibson, for example, has earned a high level of respect and still is successful, in spite of recent problems.
Otto Lerbinger, former dean of the Boston University College of Communication and author of books and articles about crisis communication, told me that public apologies are not standard with business executives, politicians, athletes and others. Entertainment celebrities may have an advantage in being able to portray sincerity, notes Professor Lerbinger, who received a PRSA Outstanding Educator Award.
In “Dirt,” a FX show about a gossip magazine, British actor Ian Hart portrays an agile paparazzo who is a schizophrenic. Maybe FX, the National Association of Rehabilitation Providers and Agencies (NARA) or the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) will give awards to celebrities and gossip media for calling attention to alcohol, drug, homophobic, anti-Semitic and other problems. Based in Oldsman, Florida (near Tampa), NARA will host a three-day conference in Washington, DC, in May and NAATP will hold its annual conference in San Diego in May.
Here is a rundown of some of the celebrities who recently have been in therapy or rehab centers.
Britney Spears, singer (born 1981). In February, Britney made global headlines with behavior than only can be called bizarre. Extra (the TV show) and People (on its Web site) were the first to report that Britney stayed one day at the Crossroads Centre, a rehab facility on the Caribbean island of Antigua. The Centre (British spelling) is owned by singer-guitarist Eric Clapton, who has had alcoholic problems. Britney then was photographed shaving her head in Esther’s Haircutting Studio in the Tarzana area of Los Angeles. KABC-TV showed a bald Britney getting tattoos, on her wrist and the back of her neck, at Body and Soul in Sherman Oaks (in the San Fernando Valley). Britney and actor Kevin Federline have been fighting for custody of their two young children. Her meltdown involved alcoholic partying. Ironically, the February 12 cover of Newsweek, headlined “The Girls Gone Wild Effect,” had photographs of partying friends Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Britney, who lives in Malibi, covered a lot of territory in early February, including the Gramercy Park Hotel and nightclub One in New York, Four Seasons hotel in Miami and Stevie’s Creole Bar & Café in Encino.
Britney’s manager is Larry Rudolph of Maloof Entertainment Companies, a huge business in music, film, TV and entertainment facilities. Rudolph is credited with discovering Britney when she was 13 years old. They split in 2004 but now are reunited. On February 20, when Britney went into rehab, Rudolph issued a statement, “We ask that the media respect her privacy.” On February 21, the TV show, The Insider, reported that Britney had checked into Promises Residential Treatment Center in Malibu but left after less than 24 hours. On February 22, she returned. Of course, you know about this from the mainstream media and not just the gossip media.
On February 22, David Bauder of The Associated Press speculated about which media will secure Britney’s tell-all interview. He listed the odds and his reasons for favoring Matt Lauer (NBC), followed by Barbara Walters (ABC), Oprah Winfrey (syndicated), Anderson Cooper (CNN), David Letterman (CBS), Diane Sawyer (ABC), Katie Couric (CBS) or a “nobody” long shot. By the time you read this, you may know who won the competition. My guess: Larry King.
Companies with celebrities as spokespeople or products endorsed by celebrities have a PR problem when those celebrities are in trouble. However, it depends on the problem. , Elizabeth Arden continues to support Britney’s line of fragrances (Curious, Fantasy, In Control and Midnight Fantasy). Elizabeth Arden also sells fragrances licensed from Elizabeth Taylor and Hilary Duff but none named after Britney’s hit album (her second, in 1998), “Oops!...I Did It Again.”
Celebrities would not be celebrities without their exposure to the media. However, to what extent are the gossip media and paparazzi responsible for some of their troubles? On February 22, Popbitch (a gossip site) e-mailed its subscribers with a mea culpa. A few years ago, Joe Kelly, of Vancouver, analyzed Britney’s first record, “Baby One More Time” (recorded in 1998). When played backward, you can hear, according to Kelly, “I’m really sick. Save me will ya.” Popbitch concluded, “Sadly we didn’t take him seriously.” Let’s move on to other celebrities in rehab.
Tara Conner, Miss USA 2006 (born 1985). On December 14, TMZ.com (an immensely popular Web site devoted to gossip) revealed that Tara might be dethroned because of alcoholic behavior. On December 16, New York’s Daily News reported other wild behavior, including use of cocaine. On December 19, Donald Trump, owner of the Miss USA Pageant, gave Tara a second chance if she agreed to get help, which she did at the Caron Foundation in Wernersville, Pennsylvania (near Reading). For more details, ask Donald Trump, Howard Rubenstein (his PR counsel) or Rosie O’Donnell. Incidentally, previous clients of the Caron Foundation include Courtney Love (1964), Liza Minnelli (1946) and Tatum O’Neil (1963).
Lindsay Lohan, actress (born 1986, one year younger than Tara Conner). After being involved in several car accidents and other alcohol-related problems, Lindsay checked herself into the Wonderland Center in the Laurel Canyon area of West Hollywood. Us Weekly magazine had the scoop, on January 17, from Lindsay’s PR counsel, Leslie Sloane Zelnick, who for several years also represented Britney. People magazine (February 5) had a gorgeous photo of Lindsay at the January 15 Golden Globes event and an aerial view of the plush Wonderland Center, but more photos and video were on Entertainment Tonight and other TV programs, Page Six of the New York Post, defamer.com and other gossip sites.
Lindsay’s mother, Dina Lohan, told the media on February 9, “It’s wonderful at Wonderland – how cheesy.” I am somewhat of a language expert so I should know the meaning of cheesy, but my definitions all are negative – trite, shabby, stupid, tacky. I’ve just learned (from the Urban Dictionary) that cheesy also can mean happy and good.
On January 22, Lindsay’s friend, actress-singer-socialite Paris Hilton (much older, born 1981) was sentenced to three years probation for alcohol-related reckless driving and ordered to attend alcohol-education courses. However, she has not been in a rehab facility, as of the time of this writing. Paris is represented by Elliot Mintz, of Beverly Hills, who often accompanies her to parties and is frequently quoted on blogspot, celebrities, defamer, jossip and socialitelife. But you don’t have to go to a gossip site to learn about Elliot Mintz. The New York Times of Sunday, August 27, had a lengthy article, headlined “Walking Miss Hilton.”
Mel Gibson, actor-director-producer (born 1956). Mel has a long history of alcohol-related problems but none were as widely publicized as his arrest on July 28 on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. More important than the misdemeanor of drunken driving was his anti-Semiric outburst to a police officer. A video of the arrest turned up on You Tube. On October 12, he discussed his rehabilitation with Diane Sawyer on ABC’s Good Morning America. His PR counsel is Alan Nierob at Rogers & Cowan, in Los Angeles (owned by Weber Shandwick, which is part of Interpublic).
Michael Richards, actor (born 1949). Best known for being Kramer on Seinfeld, Michael found a way to get back into the news. On November 17, he responded to hecklers of his performance at the Laugh Factory, in West Hollywood, with a racial tirade. In this era of cellphone video, it was inevitable that someone caught the scene, which immediately was posted on You Tube. With the help of Howard Rubenstein, Michael met with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. However, as reported by Ken Auletta in a February 12 profile of Howard Rubenstein in The New Yorker, Howard told the media that Michael is Jewish. Not that it matters, but it turns out that Michael is not Jewish. Michael undoubtedly has discussed all of this with his psychiatrist but he has not been in rehab.
Keith Urban, country music singer (born 1967). The husband of actress Nicole Kidman, Keith described his treatment (February 5 issue of People) in October for alcoholism at the Betty Ford Center near Palm Springs, California. Keith should get a special award from the rehab center associations. His first stint in rehab was in 1998 for cocaine addiction. For details, check his Web site, keithurban.net, on which Keith thanks his fans, friends and family for their support. No comment from Tom Cruise.
Isaiah Washington, actor (born 1963). Isaiah was riding high, as Dr. Burke in Grey’s Anatomy (ABC-TV), until October when he used a homophobic word about co-star T.R. Knight, who then disclosed that he is gay. Isaiah’s apologies included repetitions of the epithet and he then went into rehab. On January 24, the magazine Life & Style reported on its Web site that it was “a residential treatment facility” but did not identify it. After a week, he returned to work. His PR firm is 43 West, on West 42 Street in New York, headed by Leslee Dart, who worked for 23 years at PMK/HBH, headed by Pat Kingsley. Clients at 42 West include Woody Allen, Penelope Cruz, Hugh Grant, Tom Hanks and Martin Scorsese.
The bigotry problems of some celebrities was discussed in a New York Times article (February 8), headlined “My Big Bad Mouth,” which noted that the penance often includes PSAs and speaking at schools. “And that may be the upside of rehab of the mouth,” the Times concluded.
On the February 8 “Shark” (CBS-TV), an actress, recently discharged from a rehab center, is driving a car that is pushed off the road and she is killed. The paparazzi are suspected but James Wood (as Shark) proves that the killer was her stepfather. In the death of Princess Diana, the paparazzi also were implicated, but that’s another story. Similarly, the drug rehab and anger management program of British model Naomi Campbell (born 1970) requires another article.
Have you noticed that I refer to these celebrities by their first names? If you follow the gossip media, you soon develop a first-name familiarity with many people. I currently am studying Web sites devoted to gossip in Los Angeles, Miami Beach, New York, Washington and elsewhere, along with gossip magazines, newspapers, supermarket tabloids and TV shows in the U.S., Canada, UK, Australia, China and other countries. All of this is in preparation for a book about gossip. My plan is to discuss gossip with regard to psychology, sociology, anthropology, religion, history, literature and, of course, public relations. Spread the word. I’m looking for good gossip. (firstname.lastname@example.org) I also could give the Weiner Gossip Magnet to individuals who attract the most attention from the gossip media. No need to send nominations.
My literature file has dozens of proverbs and quotations about gossip from Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, Ogden Nash, Alexander Pope, Will Rogers, Liz Smith, Oscar Wilde, Walter Winchell and others. William Shakespeare mentioned gossip several times in his plays. Lady Macbeth boasted of drugging Duncan’s guards and her own intoxication: “That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold; what hath quench’d them hath given me fire” (the opening lines of Act II, Scene 2). If Lady Macbeth were alive today, her lawyers would advise her to plead, “The devil (drugs, alcohol) made me do it” and her public relations counsel would advise her to go into rehab. I can visualize a sleepwalking Lady Macbeth wandering the halls of Wonderland.
Richard Weiner is a public relations consultant in Miami Beach. His current book is “The Skinny About Best Boys, Dollies, Green Rooms, Leads and other Media Lingo” (Random House).