Alec Baldwin’s claim during an interview last week with George Stephanopoulos that he would “never point a gun at someone and pull the trigger” was a colossal PR mistake. It hurt his reputation far more than it helped, and likely forever damaged his brand. It is a stunning, textbook example of what not to do. Moreover, it was a remarkable moment in the annals of crisis PR that will keep communication pundits talking for decades.
Baldwin should have used the exclusive interview about the fatal shooting of Halyna Hutchins on the set of "Rust" as a defining moment that set the record straight.
Instead, it was a stunning illustration of crisis communication gone wrong.
His statements had major consequences. First, they made shocking headlines everywhere. Instead of tamping down the flames, Baldwin poured gasoline on them.
In addition, he made the story far worse by:
- blaming the gun
- refusing to take responsibility and
- denying that he pulled the trigger.
His posture and comments make it virtually impossible for the public to move past this story, and all but guarantee that it will pay even more attention as related lawsuits proceed.
"Someone put a live bullet in a gun, a bullet that wasn't even supposed to be on the property," Baldwin said during the ABC interview. "Someone is responsible for what happened, and I can't say who that is, but I know it's not me."
Here are several key crisis communication takeaways:
- Dress the part. Baldwin dressed appropriately, in dark colors. He seem approachable in his muted wardrobe, no tie and open collar. He also did a commendable job expressing emotion. Baldwin got choked up numerous times and wept openly, which was powerful.
Unfortunately, his subsequent denial of responsibility for Hutchins's death severely undercut all those human emotions.
- Renewed media coverage: Baldwin created a news cycle with his fantastical assertion that the gun somehow discharged without him pulling the trigger. The stunning claim has drawn the attention of media worldwide, which zeroed in on his gun statements instead of the grief and remorse he was trying to convey.
Baldwin’s assertion likely will stir anger instead of sympathy, fueling outrage against him that will forever mar his brand. He could have talked about the shooting in ways that expressed regret without implicating himself or mentioning details, such as squeezing the trigger.
- No culpability: 'The gun was responsible, not Baldwin,' was his core message. When Baldwin said he did not pull the trigger, you could see the surprise on Stephanopoulos's face.What is worse is that this fantastical claim took away the focus from Hutchins’s death. It also failed to underscore the tragedy's accidental nature. Instead, it positioned Baldwin as the victim.
- Misdirected focus: Baldwin’s failure to take responsibility caused an avalanche of media coverage that diverts the focus away from the woman he killed and back onto him.
People who consumed the new developments likely will never pay attention to Baldwin’s statements of shock. Instead, they are fixated on his jarring lack of personal accountability.
- Timing is everything: The timing of Baldwin’s comments about the shooting is problematic. If he really did not pull the trigger, then why did he wait more than a month to say so? His explanation that he had to “wait for the process to finish” was vague and unclear.
His stunning claims about the miraculous discharge of the gun may be a craven legal strategy or PR spin to take heat off the actor and help him evade culpability as lawsuits pile up.
- Preparation pays off: Baldwin’s numerous mistakes point to poor or non-existent interview preparation. It defies logic that Baldwin would not have received extensive coaching ahead of such a high-stakes interview. Maybe Baldwin thought that because he had done so many interviews he could handle this one, but he was wrong.
- Unforgettable actions: What could have been a parenthetical for Baldwin–that he accidentally shot someone on a movie set–is cemented as a central, defining moment that he will have to live with forever.
Will Alec Baldwin have an opportunity to act again? Almost certainly. But his name is synonymous with shooting someone and refusing to take responsibility.
Evan Nierman is CEO of Red Banyan and author of “Crisis Averted”