PR In The Celebrity World – Should The Approach Be The Same?

Like most, I have been paying attention to the Bill Cosby sex abuse scandal and like many other public relations practitioners, I’m sure, have thought about it from a Public Relations perspective. However, rather than a focus on whether or not Cosby’s PR team has been effective, I have spent time thinking about the differences, if any, between celebrity scandals versus organization/corporation scandals.

Pondering this eventually led me to the following question: should the strategy for handling a celebrity crisis be the same as handling a crisis for an organization and/or corporation? In my opinion, this is a relevant question because of the significant differences between celebrity clients versus an organization and/or corporation, which means the stakes for each, may be different. Some of these key differences include:

Stakeholders – Most organizations and corporations typically have a lot of key stakeholders including employees, shareholders, consumers and suppliers, to whom they are accountable to with every significant action and decision.

Control – Most organizations and corporations are bound, not just by the laws of the land but also company by-laws, policies, etc.

Accountability – Organizations, particularly public ones, always have to be visible and accountable to different government and financial agencies.

As a result of said differences, there are certain factors a public relations practitioner has to consider when dealing with an organization crisis that they don’t have to, when dealing with a celebrity crisis. Such as, how would the response/strategy affect all of the organization’s stakeholders, who is the best person to respond or speak for the organization, whether or not the response and strategy stays true to the organization’s vision, mission, by-laws and more.

An organization also has the option of eliminating the root of a crisis. For example, if the crisis is based on the misconduct of any particular leader, there is the option of simply having said leader removed and distancing the organization from the individual and the scandal.

The latter is not an option for a celebrity scandal because ultimately, a celebrity is his/her product. While there are obviously agents, managers and publicists looking out for their interests, every celebrity at the end of the day, is an individual entity as opposed to an organization.

On one level, it makes the stakes seem a lot lower for a celebrity scandal. At worse, an individual loses their performing career and becomes another celebrity of the past. In an industry so heavily image conscious and always quick to push out the “next big thing”, this hardly seems like a big deal.  However, for an organization, a truly devastating crisis can cause massive job and economic loss.

That being said, for all the differences, there is one very important similarity in terms of the effects of a celebrity or organization scandal. And that is, the threat of public backlash which is very significant because public support is invaluable to both entities. An organization cannot function and succeed without public/consumer support and similarly, a celebrity is only as marketable and profitable in as much as the public cares about and supports them.

And it is because of this key similarity that ultimately, despite the differences, I don’t think the strategy for handling a celebrity crisis should be that different from an organization/corporation crisis. Ultimately I think the old tried and true crisis management strategy is best – and that is, try to get ahead of the story as best as possible, take accountability and ownership of any wrongdoing when appropriate, sincerely apologize and try to move on with actions that show remorse.

Obviously I acknowledge that something like Cosby’s sex scandal, which is a crime, is a bit different in terms of admitting guilt and simply saying sorry but I believe the general principal still stands. Many crisis situations in the past – celebrity and corporation alike – has shown that the public can be very forgiving when they believe an individual or organization genuinely and sincerely regrets their actions and want to do better. After all, as the saying goes, “Hollywood always loves a good comeback story.”

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