There are countless communications takeaways from the recent celebrity gaffes. Whether it’s Paula Deen dealing with allegations of being a racist and then dropped like a buttered sweet potato by every brand partner, or Jennifer Lopez singing "Happy Birthday" to Turkmenistan’s authoritarian ruler for his 56th birthday last Saturday night, one thing is for sure: another day, another blunder by a celebrity or public figure.
Is the PR team to blame for either of these crises -- or is it to be sympathized with? After all, wrangling bosses with high stature and over-sized egos to do and say what you advise is not kid’s play. You win some, you lose some. In the Paula Deen and J.Lo cases, I take the side that PR could have done a better job of doing their job. Public Relations is not just about pitching stories to the media (which is what most of the public thinks) – it’s about improving or maintaining reputations, shaping messages, avoiding crises, moving a brand forward, managing expectations, and so much more.
PR could have shined in both these crises – resulting in another needed feather in the PR cap. (Notably, there are hundreds of crises every day that never see the light of media because PR is in fact doing its job.)
Because too much has already been written and said about Paula Deen, I will keep this one simple: PR counselors can’t make their clients less racist, but a strategic and strong PR counsel can guide their client to take the right steps to mitigate crisis, to apologize, to articulate how he or she will make amends. Instead, we hear Deen utter: “I is what I is” and we hear her challenging people to throw stones at her head if they weren’t guilty as well of saying mean things. Even before getting into crisis management mode, shouldn’t Deen’s PR team have seen this coming? Did they have a seat at any of Deen’s many tables, guiding her on public perception, listening to what her employees were saying and feeling? It was a public secret that Deen used the “N-word” often.
From Savannah to the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan we have another situation that will predictably be less of a long-term problem for the celebrity. J.Lo was the guest of a China National Petroleum Corp. event in Turkmenistan when she was asked to sing "Happy Birthday" to that country’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. J.Lo’s spokesman, Mark Young, told the New York Post: “Had there been knowledge of human-rights issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended” the birthday party. Um, Google or Bing “Turkmenistan” and you’ll find that Human Rights Watch lists it “among the most repressive” countries in the world. As my PR News colleague Lucia Davis writes on prnewsonline, this crisis, too, could have been avoided.
The whole situation was made worse by J.Lo’s team members’ enthusiasm for being at this event, with her choreographer cluelessly tweeting: “The Turkmenistan breeze feels amazing at night, kidz! I wonder where all my Turkmenistan followers are!? Hit me up!” Perhaps the people of this land can’t follow him on Tweeter because, according to Human Rights Watch, “The Turkmen government exercises total control of public life.”
In my 18 years in the PR space, one of the most basic pieces of advice volleyed between media and PR people has been to “do your homework.” PR people shouldn’t pitch stories to reporters without knowing what and whom they cover. And reporters should respect PR’s role in the ecosystem, whether it’s a political, entertainment, business or nonprofit story, and should come into the interview knowing a thing or two about their subject. Had J.Lo’s team done its homework, it would have easily discovered that even showing up for an event honoring a repressive world leader is ill-advised. Singing "Happy Birthday" was just icing on the stinking cake. Had Paula Deen’s PR team done a listening tour of the people closest to her empire – such as her employees – they could have put measures in place to avoid the downward spiral.
Summer’s here, school is out, but we will always have our homework to do.
- Diane Schwartz