In the just over two months since The New York Times first published its industry-shattering report about the sexual harassment and assault allegations around Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood machine built on protecting the image and brands of its A-list members has been working overtime to plug the leaks in the Titanic-like reputations of some of its most powerful men. Formerly thought to be unsinkable, those behemoths are going down. And fast.
On Wednesday, Weinstein's beleaguered PR team was called upon to put out yet another fire and issue a carefully worded statement after Salma Hayek published an essay in The New York Times about her traumatic experience working with the producer on Frida.
At this point, over 80 women have accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct. One can't help but wonder: Why have the people around him stuck it out?
For as long as there have been celebrities, there have been people in charge of managing those celebrities' misdeeds. In Hollywood, this has meant a well-oiled quid-pro-quo relationship between an army of publicists and certain media outlets. When a celebrity strayed, some publicists would use their relationship with certain reporters to quash the story, in exchange for an exclusive, or a different spin. The rise of sites like TMZ and Perez Hilton has made this job more difficult over the years, but still, not impossible.
But recently, something has shifted; as the traditional Hollywood power structure continues to be challenged by allegations of workplace harassment, it's becoming increasingly difficult for publicists and lawyers to take these cases on at all without damaging their own reputations. And as a recent New York Times story detailing the vast network of people complicit in keeping Harvey Weinstein's indiscretions out of the public eye showed, not all of them have a clear conscience.
In that context, examining the basic blueprint of celebrity crisis management seems more relevant than ever. Specifically: What do you do when the person you're supposed to be representing suddenly becomes public enemy #1?
According to Allan Mayer, c0-founder and CEO of 42West, a strategic communications firm specializing in entertainment PR, the first step is to get to the truth. "If they've done something truly awful, or even just bad, my approach has always been to get them to own it, and if they're not willing to do that, then I can't help them," he said.
Though Mayer refused to comment on any of the specific allegations currently in the news, he is well known in the business for counseling major names in Hollywood like Steven Spielberg, and, according to The New York Times, is currently representing Jeffrey Tambor, the Transparent actor accused of sexual harassment by two women. Tambor has denied the allegations.
Kelly Brady, co-founder and CEO of Brandsway Creative, says she sits down with her clients and asks them point blank: "I need you to tell me the truth. Is what you're being accused of true or false?"
Once the truth is out, the publicist has a choice to make: Do they keep the client?
It's a simple question that's gotten a lot more complicated in the last couple of months, largely due to a shift in how our culture views sexual harassment on the scale of bad human behaviors.
"I think the biggest breakthrough is not simply that we got to this tipping point where all of a sudden a lot of women who were afraid to speak up felt empowered," Mayer said. "There's a large segment of the culture who never took the issue seriously because they didn't see it in their own lives. What's come out in the last couple of months has woken up this huge group."
Mayer believes that accusations of routine sexual harassment have become a stain comparable to pedophilia, in the sense that once your client is associated with that, they're blacklisted forever. In that context, publicists need to examine their own consciences, yes, but also assess the potential risk to their companies if they choose to keep or take on that that person as a client.
"Most of the major figures in the headlines in the first few weeks of all of this called me, and I turned them down," Mayer said. "It was clear to me that the stories I read were very carefully reported and lawyered, and I was persuaded by them, and my own knowledge of a lot of these folks, that it was far more likely that it was true."
Unlike lawyers, who can justify taking on a guilty party under the idea that everyone is legally entitled to an aggressive defense, a publicist's decision to continue to work with someone they know or believe to be in the wrong is purely subjective.
Personal choices made by individual publicists aside however, it appears that the business of crisis management itself is at a crossroads: pre-Weinstein and post-Weinstein.
"I think clear lines need to drawn," Brady said. "Crisis management will always exist, I think it’s our duty to vet these cases and come to the decision if it is morally right to take a case on. The reputation of myself and my company comes first."
The last two months have seen publicists and agencies dropping clients associated with allegations of sexual assault and harassment like hot potatoes. High-profile celebrity attorney Lisa Bloom was supposed to represent Harvey Weinstein, but backtracked a week later after a barrage of criticism from quite literally everyone and her mother, celebrated women's rights attorney Gloria Allred. After that, it only took a couple of days for CAA, and publicist Staci Wolfe, to drop Kevin Spacey as a client after he was accused by actor Anthony Rapp of having made indecent sexual advances against a minor. After HBO, FX and Netflix took steps to publicly distance themselves from Louis C.K., faced with accusations from five women that he had masturbated in front of them, his publicist, Lewis Kay, and 3 Arts Management announced that they were terminating their relationship with the comedian.
“When you know that there is somebody who has done something as severe as we are seeing now, I don’t blame people for dropping their clients," Danny Deraney, head of Deraney PR, said in an interview. "The only thing that I would be annoyed about is if they knew about it and did nothing. [And] I find it hard to believe that a lot of these people didn’t know what was going on.”
Still, there will always be those willing to take on even the most guilty clients. "There's a lot of people — and they tend to be men, but not exclusively — who kind of see themselves as gunslingers," Mayer said. "It's almost a point of pride if you take on someone really terrible and succeed."
"There's an old saying in the crisis business which is that, 'When times are good, business is good, and when times are bad, business is better," he added."The only thing we can hope for is that at the end of the day, it's not effective."
Once you know whether or not your client is guilty of something, and have decided to take on the case, you can put the wheels in motion to either address the problem head on (if they're guilty), or deflect (if they're not). Often, responding right away isn't the way to go. As we've seen repeatedly over the last eight weeks, there are a lot of ways to mess up a statement or apology.
“If you’re getting into a disagreement with someone and they call you a terrible name, your first reaction is going to be anger, probably something impulsive," Deraney says. "Three hours from now, you’re not going to be as angry. Four hours from now you’re not going to be as angry. You want to wait for everything to settle. Use time to settle what’s going on, what’s being [said] against you, organizing yourself, organizing your thoughts.”
And about those thoughts — as the poet Justin Bieber sang long before all this, saying "Sorry" is harder than it seems. We've yet to see that elusive, perfect expression of remorse. Partly, that's due to a tension between the desire to clear one's name, and the need to listen to lawyers, who usually don't want you to say anything at all.
It's a tough line to toe because, while even the most innocuous statement could potentially be used in a lawsuit down the line, saying nothing at all is tantamount to an admission of guilt. This leads to what Mayer calls "the non-apology apologies" that have come under fire on social media over the last several weeks.
"The problem is that quite often — and I think we're seeing it in this great reckoning we're having, a lot of the men who have been called out want to indicate that they are remorseful," he said. "And so you get these tortured apologies that are clearly drafted by lawyers and don't make anybody happy, least of all the women who have been assaulted or harassed over the years."
Deraney says he won't actually write an apology for a client (although he can't speak for what others do), but he will look it over to make sure it doesn't misstep. He points to Louis C.K.'s statement as an example of what happens when the intent is there, but the implementation is botched. “[P]eople clearly saw right through that,” he added.
But no matter how well-worded, an apology on its own isn't enough. “You came out and you said what you did, but at the same time, what are you going to do about it?" Deraney asked. "What can you do? How can you made yourself better? How can you make sure this never happens again?”
At the beginning of the month, The Hollywood Reporter confirmed that House Of Cards would be resuming production on its final season early next year without Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood. The show's future had been in limbo ever since the accusations against the actor first surfaced in late October. Spacey's role in the upcoming Ridley Scott feature, All The Money In The World, has also been re-cast, with Christopher Plummer taking over as John Paul Getty. But the question remains: Can any of these guys come back from this?
Brady thinks not. Deraney, on the other hand, isn't so sure. “I think we’re such a forgiving country that anything is possible," he said. "Look at Mel Gibson..."
Ironically, the one person Deraney can foresee making a comeback of sorts is Harvey Weinstein, the man whose story started this national reckoning in the first place. Because his involvement is behind the scenes rather than as the face of a project, it is conceivable that he could round up the resources to make a film, and conceal his involvement. "He still has the resources, [and] he still has allies who want to help him, I’m sure," Deraney said.
One of those allies, Paul Tudor Jones, who sits on the board of The Weinstein Co., was quoted in a recent New York Times story. “Focus on the future as America loves a great comeback story,” he reportedly wrote to Weinstein. “The good news is, this will go away sooner than you think and it will be forgotten!”
Still, there is a hopeful caveat to that assessment: Given the current climate of change taking over Hollywood and society at large, celebrities won't willingly associate their names with someone like Weinstein, and will likely drop out of projects if they find out he's behind them. Weinstein may never really be excised from Hollywood, but he'll never wield the kingmaker status he once did, a shift that will definitely resonate come this awards season, and many thereafter.
For his part, Mayer thinks Weinstein, and all others like him in the business, are done for good. "All of these guys had it coming to them, and I'm sure there are still others, looking over their shoulders, wondering when it's going to be their turn," he said, adding: "It's not just a 'boys will be boys' kind of thing anymore. If you're shown to be a man who has [routinely] harassed women, you're done."
This story has been updated to reflect that Allan Mayer also represents Jeffrey Tambor,
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
This content is currently unavailable. Check it out from your desktop or on our web app!
Read These Stories Next: