It’s a precarious business being famous. At any moment scandal could strike, misfortune could befall you, leaving your hard-earned reputation in tatters. Thankfully, there’s an entire industry on hand ready to act in your defence should disaster ever arise: corporate and celebrity crisis management.
In Issue Six of Popbitch Magazine we tried to figure out if there was anything that a celebrity could do to absolutely and definitively destroy their career. An allegation so heinous, a scandal so shocking that their reputation could never survive it. As far as we could see, the answer was (spoiler alert): no. There wasn’t. Murder, rape, assault, gay meow meow sex orgies: to a celebrity, these are all surmountable problems.
We used a fairly loose interpretation of the word ‘celebrity’ in order to make the point (you won’t find too many pieces where Leslie Grantham is discussed side-by-side with Cara Delevingne) and we’re about to expand the definition even further so that we can discuss the crisis management industry.
You see, high-profile bad behaviour has a fall-out effect. When someone in the glare of the world’s media acts up, they are not the only ones to suffer the consequences. Their friends and family suffer, their staff suffers, their management and colleagues suffer. The bigger you are, the wider the blast zone.
This isn’t just the case for celebrities. It’s the case for anyone (or anything) in the public eye – be they celebrities, corporations, countries, criminal suspects.
Thankfully, no matter who or what you are, if you find yourself in a rather prominent pickle there are experts you can employ in order to minimise the effect of such scandals. Spin doctors, public relations people, reputation managers – an entire industry’s worth of workers. These people are drafted in to contain and control the story, limit the damage done, so that everyone can emerge from it relatively unscathed.
So how does it all work? We asked a leading industry professional to talk us through some of the most unfortunate and infamous examples of companies in crisis, celebrities in jeopardy and general bad branding.
A Bird’s In The Hand
In December 2006, the news was filled with one big story. Someone in Suffolk was strangling prostitutes. An unidentified serial killer was on the loose – a type that Britain hadn’t seen in years. Every news bulletin for days led with the story of the Ipswich Strangler as police tried to identify who it was. The nation held its breath waiting to find out who was doing it.
When it was announced that the police had apprehended a suspect by the name of Tom Stephens, news agencies scrabbled to find whatever pictures they could. This was the one they decided to lead with.
While this image worked perfectly for illustrating a news story (Stephens looks as odd as any news editor could hope him to) it was a rather unfortunate piece of luck for the various other parties involved. It was unfortunate for Tom Stephens, who was later found to have absolutely nothing to do with the crime, and it was also unfortunate for Bird’s Custard, who had even less to do with it.
At this point, Bird’s had been making powdered custard and other dehydrated dessert products for nearly 170 years. They had a proud heritage, having provided the British Army with custard in World War One. There isn’t a company in existence whose brand values are more opposed to the strangling of prostitutes than Bird’s, and yet it was Bird’s who found themselves unfairly and unfortunately lumped with an alleged prostitute strangler for their poster boy.
What do you do when something like this happens? We asked Online Reputation Expert Paul Blanchard for his opinion on this case.
“Household brands have to accept that unfortunate things do happen. When dealing with events that may or may not affect their reputation, it is vital that brands, and high-profile individuals, keep things in perspective.
“It’s natural to want to do something, anything, immediately; to call the press, get the photo removed or pixelated, or put out a strongly worded statement. But they need to remember that a large proportion of events, sometimes tragic, involve brands: every car driven by a drunk-driver that kills a child has a manufacturer; murderers work for corporations and brands, and high-profile hotel chains or venues are often named in criminal cases. All these events are covered by the press using photos of that car or that corporation or that hotel. There is no evidence that I know of that by saying and doing nothing, these events have any immediate or lasting effect on the brand’s reputation.”
“Bird’s Custard had two options here in my opinion. First, they could have asked the picture editor to crop the photo – not pixelate it, as this would cause more interest in what was ‘blacked out’. Or, secondly, do nothing. Customers are not idiots, they realise that the criminal is not endorsing the product in any formal way – it’s just unfortunate that that’s the photo the press were given or discovered.”
Placed In A Binder
Josef Fritzl is one of the creepiest criminals to have made a name for himself in the last century; his story really is only a needle and thread away from Human Centipede territory.
If you can’t quite remember the details, this – in short – is what he did.
In a small house in Amstetten, Austria, Fritzl had been keeping his daughter, Elisabeth, as a slave in his basement for 24 years. Over this quarter century he got her pregnant. Eight times. Seven made it to full term. Of those seven, four of them lived in the basement with their mother (one dying shortly after birth, and given an amateur cremation on the Fritzl property). The other three made it upstairs to live in plain sight with their father-grandfather and his wife.
It was outrageously gruesome stuff – about as gruesome as it is physically possible to be without government backing. Naturally, he was arrested and hauled up in front of a judge.
Under Austrian law, a defendant is allowed to take their own legal papers into the court. Josef Fritzl opened his file in front of reporters and used it to cover his face as he walked into court. This caused a problem. Not for Fritzl – he was entirely permitted to do this by letter of the law. Not for the courts either – they were fine with it happening too. The problem was for Esselte, the stationery company who made the binder.
The reason it caused such a problem was because the pictures which made the international news were not of a man walking into court to answer charges of incest, rape, coercion, false imprisonment, enslavement and negligent homicide. They were of a bright blue Esselte binder with a torso, arms and legs.
Esselte has been manufacturing office supplies since 1913. Though the company changed the spelling of its name in 1970 (it was originally SLT), by the time of Josef Fritzl’s trial, they had nearly four decades of trading under the name ‘Esselte’ and nearly a century of being a leading name in the field of stationery. They were as established a brand as anyone tackling the world of paper and paper-related products could hope to become.
Naturally, nobody in their right mind thought that Esselte had deliberately struck up some sort of promotional relationship with a suspected slave-owner but, unfortunately, someone at Esselte’s Belgian office decided to speak to the press about the incident. And they thought it might be good to display a sense of humour about the whole thing.
The employee was speaking in Dutch, so we aren’t quoting her verbatim, but the general gist of her statement was that they were happy with the free publicity that this court case had provided for them and though they didn’t expect that to translate into any direct sales it did at least show that Esselte was an important and trusted brand with a significant reach.
It was a mistake. Hours later Esselte were forced to distance themselves from the statement, tossing said employee under the bus by saying that she was talking in a ‘personal capacity’ and that the company clearly did not see this court case as an advertising opportunity.
You don’t need to be an expert to see that this wasn’t textbook crisis management. Ignoring it would have been the best option. Paul Blanchard says, “It’s unlikely that any member of the public would even have noticed the brand of the binder – or cared. Unfortunately Esselte did rush to try to distance itself and ended up with their own personal Streisand Effect. They made a very, very big mistake.”
Esselte aren’t the only stationery brand to have suffered at the hands of a convicted criminal. West Country ‘comedian’ and ‘personality’ Justin Lee Collins was on trial in 2012 on a couple of counts of domestic and emotional abuse.
There were a number of unusual details to emerge from the case – largely details about the peculiar sexual dysfunctions that Justin Lee Collins appeared to suffer from. There was his habit of waking his girlfriend up whenever she turned away from him in her sleep. There was his unwillingness to own any DVDs of movies that starred actors he felt she might fancy. There was the strange racial jealousy too, where Collins would scream at his girlfriend about imagined sexual encounters he thought she had had with ‘blacks’ and ‘chinks’. But the most curious of them all was that of Justin’s Pukka Pad.
Pukka Pad, if you weren’t aware, is a make of notepad. A Pukka Pad looks exactly like a regular notepad. It operates like a regular notepad too. In fact, that’s exactly what a Pukka Pad is. A regular notepad.
Why the prosecution and the defence specifically chose to identify the Pukka Pad brand in the court proceedings – when the word ‘notepad’ would have sufficed – is not clear. Nevertheless, this was obviously a detail that got jumped upon and one that made pretty much every newspaper report.
Two years previously, before any of the court cases, Justin Lee Collins would have been quite the celebrity endorsement. He was hosting Channel 4’s Friday night programming. He was a recognisable face. A lot of people thought he was a total twat, but they only thought he was annoying. No-one had any idea he was a sex bully. But now we know that Justin Lee Collins used his Pukka Pad to make forensically precise notes about his ex-girlfriend’s sexual history the company were stuck with an unwanted and unasked-for connection to a criminal.
They were now the stationery of choice for the sexually disturbed. Notepaper for ne’er-do-wells. How do you even start going about detoxifying your brand from something like this?
Paul Blanchard again: “In this case there was nothing Pukka Pad could do about the coverage. The lawyers decided to name the device and that becomes part of the evidence. The brand could have spoken to the court reporters to ask them to minimise mentions of the brand but that would have been counter-productive, possibly leading to allegations of press gagging. By blaming the press or tackling journalists head-on, it might be that all you’re doing is making everything ten times worse.
“This is a clear case of where doing nothing is the only option – and the best option. Doing nothing is a course of action that large corporates often find very difficult to get their heads round. Their business models are usually built on action for action’s sake. It can be incredibly hard to show them that in reputation management terms taking no action is a positive, active response that will not affect their future profits or customer relations.”
This Time, It’s Personal
What happens if you’re not a company but instead a celebrity? If your brand isn’t so much a brand, it’s actually you – a real life person? What do you do when you get accused of massive drug taking? When you get caught pissing all up and down an ATM? When you get collared by Operation Yewtree? How the hell do you go about rescuing your brand then?
Sexual assault seems the most timely and, given the current climate, the most toxic of all the accusations going. So what happens to a person when they are tarred with the 1970s sex scandal brush? What steps do you take to limit the pounding your reputation is about to take?
Ordinarily, if you are caught doing something appalling, a sizeable donation to a related charity normally acts as a pretty decent salve. Jimmy Savile has put the kibosh on this little tactic for anyone fingered by Yewtree though. (“Paedo, eh? No doubt he gave millions to kids charities and hospitals to cover it up…”)
You can’t speak airily or loftily about the accusations either, because sexual offences are nothing be airy or lofty about. Dave Lee Travis took a rather informal approach to the charges he faced, giving a press statement in which he said “So let’s get down to brass tacks here. The first thing is I’ve been talking to the police about sexual… I can’t even remember what the word is now. In the old days it was called ‘putting your arm around somebody and giving them a cuddle’ but nowadays God knows. But anyway, I was accused of squeezing the boobs of a couple of women.”
The word DLT was groping for there was sexual assault – a crime of which he was later found guilty, and received a three-month suspended sentence for. So much for being blasé about it.
In fact, short of issuing a short and firm denial at the very outset, there isn’t a great deal more the accused can do that doesn’t invite comment and massive scrutiny. Which is why they need to retain the services of media advisors. People who can train them up in order to navigate the arrest and court proceedings without putting a foot wrong and trashing their name any more than is absolutely strictly necessary.
With so many celebrities coming under the spotlight for past alleged crimes, the reputation management industry has had a massive shot in the arm. Thanks to Yewtree, hundreds of thousands of pounds have been placed into the pockets of PR companies and law firms.
We know one such celebrity who hasn’t been charged with any offence but pretty instantly employed the services of a public relations company (and a law firm) to prepare him for the challenges ahead. We’ve read the feedback report that they prepared for him. So we’re in the perfect position to tell you ourselves what the expert advice is following a high-profile arrest for desperately unpopular crimes.
This is what happens.
In the time between giving your initial statement to the press and making your first public appearance (whereupon you are likely to be pounced upon by journalists, demanding answers) you get some media training in the form of a mock interview. This interview will be conducted by the crisis management firm you have employed, and you will be sat in front of a PR person who, presumably, has a flair for theatre. They will pretend to be a Martin Bashir-type interviewer and once they have pointed a few cameras and studio lights at you, you will be grilled about your recent arrest and the allegations that surround you.
The PR team then watch your taped performance over and over again, before writing up an appraisal in which they give their thoughts on the celeb’s performance, their message and their personability. The interview tapes and the feedback document are then passed over to the law firm you have hired, who go on to add their two thousand cents’ worth, making further suggestions as to how a celebrity may be best represented when answering questions.
In it, they pull out problematic lines. Phrases or keywords that could cause unwelcome headlines. It isn’t until you’re reading selected transcripts of these mock interviews that you realise quite how easy it is to say something that sounds innocuous in context, but looks terrible when stripped to a few choice words.
To save you the hundreds of thousands of pounds that it could very easily cost you to employ a crack team of crisis managers and lawyers, we’ve condensed our findings below. So if you are ever arrested on suspicion of molesting people (or anything else, for that matter) you may want to bear the following in mind:
Don’t Big Yourself Up
However famous you may or may not be, it does not endear you to the public to puff your chest out and say that you’re only attracting these sorts of allegations because you’re such a massive star. At best it makes you look arrogant and aloof; at worst it makes you look deluded. Without exception it makes you unsympathetic. As much as it might pain you to do so, you have to put your ego aside.
Don’t Compare The Crime You’ve Stand Accused Of With Other Crimes
Freddie Starr could have done with this advice. He decided, when arrested, to make it clear that his allegations had nothing to do with kids. Nothing. To do. With kids. In doing so, he ended up repeating the words “paedophile”, “children”, “under-aged girl”, “kids”, “Jimmy Savile” and “Gary Glitter” more than any one person should.
Even if what you’re saying (as Freddie Starr did) is: “If there is one thing I’ve always hated it’s paedophiles… I’ve always been against paedophiles and always will be. I’ve never touched any under-aged girl in my life. Paedophiles are a pet hate of mine, so I refute it completely.”
All you end up doing is creating page after page of Google results for the search term “Freddie Starr Paedophile”.
Don’t Air Any Other Grievances You Have
If you’re mad about people on the internet making other crazy claims about you, that’s perfectly understandable. But, according to the very well-paid media advisers, it is not wise to use your first interview after an allegation of sexual assault as a platform to address those matters as well.
Say, for example, that someone has very crudely Photoshopped a picture of your wife being rogered by an Alsatian and uploaded it on the internet. Or that some internet crackpots were suggesting you had murdered some children and buried them in the grounds of your holiday home. Or maybe there was a long-standing rumour that you ate somebody’s hamster. It is entirely natural for you to be annoyed by this. Lies and rumours and gossip can be extremely infuriating and you may feel this is a chance to put the record completely straight.
However, if you find yourself being questioned by police about a completely separate matter, you should not bring any of this up. Unlike you, most ordinary people won’t have been scouring the internet for mentions of your name. The chances are that the vast majority of people won’t have seen these websites. As soon as you mention pictures of your wife shagging a dog on the internet though, that’s all anyone’s going to remember. (By the way, we’re not talking about Paul Daniels in this piece. It’s just a really funny example.)
Don’t Mention The Number Of Accusers
This isn’t one we’d really considered but, according to the experts, it’s a bad idea to talk in concrete numbers about incidents and accusations. If you do, you risk bumping up the tally as ‘fantasists’ and ‘liars’ will take the comment as a challenge – a throwing down of the gauntlet – and they will then feel inspired to ‘crawl out of the woodwork’.
The Best Tip Of All
Of course our best advice – better than all of that, and cheaper too – is not to molest people. Or lock them up against their will. Or strangle prostitutes. Or anyone for that matter. Don’t strangle anyone. It will make life a lot simpler for absolutely everyone. But if you do, make sure the only thing you get photographed with is from a person or company you’ve been harbouring a grudge against. The only silver lining when you see the ranks of photographers lined up to welcome you into the Old Bailey is that you can reach into your bag, hold up something against your face… and it’s payback time.