The practice of designing strategies to salvage the reputations of celebrities embroiled in scandals is very common.Denying, clarifying, justifying, and distancing are just a few of many strategies used by PR firms hired to deal with scandals. The sex and violence scandal currently surrounding broadcast personality Jian Ghomeshi is a perfect example of a carefully planned set of tactics designed to deflect responsibility and protect the image of a popular celebrity. Ghomeshi has already used many different methods to deny the allegations of abhorrent sexual violence made against him, but despite his calculated treatment of the allegations, Ghomeshi’s statements and public denials have only intensified the public’s focus on the scandal.
From the very onset of the Ghomeshi scandal, his advisors at Navigator—who have since parted ways with him, due to claims from Navigator that Ghomeshi had lied about his situation—have made careful statements to deny his culpability and preserve his image. Even before any formal allegations were made public, Ghomeshi released a statement on his public Facebook page, denying his responsibility for the alleged violence. This was a deliberate strategy that highlighted the importance of having the first word in a publicized scandal. By addressing the allegations before the media got a hold of the scandal, Ghomeshi was able to influence the direction of the discussion rather than having to react to it. Ghomeshi’s Facebook status was effective because he was able to reframe the scandal as a completely different issue than what was put forth in the allegations. Ghomeshi contended that the scandal was his former employer reacting negatively to his unorthodox sexual practices. Ghomeshi’s initial Facebook statement is especially important because of the speed with which information can travel on social media. If Ghomeshi’s response had been slower, people would have quickly jumped onto the issue and started making their own judgments based on whatever they had heard so far. Taking too long to address a crisis and being forced to make a reactive response can also seem too defensive.
It seems as though the strategies used should have helped to alleviate the severity of the scandal. In reality, however, the denials and deflections seem to have only added fuel to the fire. By confronting, denying, and countering the claims of his accusers, Ghomeshi has only focused more attention on the issue. The Toronto Star had considered publishing a story in May regarding the allegations made against Ghomeshi, but refrained due to inadequate proof to support the legitimacy of the accusations. In its explanation for publishing the first wave of allegations of his violence, the Star asserted that Ghomeshi’s public statement on Facebook provided enough justification for the Star to publish the first real news coverage of the scandal; The imminent publication of the article was arguably the catalyst that prompted CBC to fire Ghomeshi, and incited a torrent of news stories. Had Ghomeshi not attempted to deny the claims made against him, the media might never have even picked up on the story. In fact, if Ghomeshi had never made his public statement and the scandal didn’t reach the level of publicity that it has, the new allegations that have been made might never have come forward.
From what we have seen with crisis management of celebrity cases, scandals would be much more short-lived and arguably less severe if the back and forth between the accusers and the defendant wasn’t so drawn out. If the person affected by the scandal came forward admitting to their mistakes in the beginning, the media attention would likely be much less intense. In the PR world, this strategy of admitting to one’s wrongdoings is known as ‘mortification.’ Judging by its name and how infrequently it is used, it is fair to say that mortification is not the preferred strategy for managing scandals. Indeed, we rarely see celebrities coming forward with the entire truth. Instead, elaborate excuses and distractions are fabricated to try to save face. In the end, however, these usually just end up making the scandal even more shameful when the truth is finally revealed.