Are Celebrities Worth The PR Risk?

Tiger Woods’ fall from grace, and his long climb back, was the gift that kept on giving for PR and reputation experts. But it also teed up a round of fresh concern about getting in bed with celebrities.
Since then, there have been other reputation crises (Lance Armstrong) as well as more minor gaffes from boldfaced names like Justin Bieber and Reese Witherspoon. Today’s climate is all the more challenging because social media amplifies the tiniest misstep and the news cycle is relentless in its speed and appetite for scandal.

No one is immune.  Unlike her (relatively unknown) husband, Witherspoon wasn’t guilty of drunk driving; she was caught in a more serious infraction – arrogance while under the influence!

So, are marketers still attracted to celebrities? The answer is yes. But there’s been an impact on contract negotiations, morals clauses, and other legal, marketing and PR issues. Here are some considerations for those looking at a celebrity endorsement campaign.

Brand endorsements will be more limited.  A while back, it was considered strategic to tie your brand to a breakout athlete in a metaphor for high performance, like Accenture did with Tiger Woods. Today, not so much. Look for companies to fall back on the “Taste great, less filling”-style product endorsement. It’s more cost-effective and far less risky.

For celebrities, privacy is over. If you’re pulling down millions in endorsements based on your professional performance and public image, you have traded away your privacy.  Social media is a powerful tool for any kind of brand, from a product to a personality, and it should be subject to limits and restrictions as part of the deal.

Contracts will be shorter and more flexible, with clear exit strategies. A ten-year deal suddenly looks a lot less attractive than a three-year one. Terminations and how they may be communicated will be carefully negotiated to protect the reputations of both parties.

Morals clauses will be tighter, and possibly reciprocal. Sports law expert Michael McCann predicts that savvy personalities will ask for reciprocity here, in the event of reputation damage resulting from something like a massive product recall or personal injury situation.

Celebrity marketing programs must include risk and crisis management plans. Marketers know they must move beyond lip service here. Even something as socially accepted as pregnancy can quash the brand plan, as in the case of Jessica Simpson, who was announced to be with child on the heels of her Weight Watchers deal. A contingency plan is a must.

Is Tiger Woods Back?

“Winning Takes Care of Everything,” boasts the ad. Sponsored by Nike, the only brand that stuck by the disgraced golfer as he struggled to get his reputation out of the rough, it has an impertinence that’s gotten everyone talking. It’s confident, even cocky, and most importantly, buzzworthy. A winner for Nike.

Yet the tone is at odds with Woods’ carefully choreographed repentance and new, more humble lifestyle. Also, it may be a little premature (the Arnold Palmer Invitational isn’t the toughest tournament, after all!) More to the point, it violates a cardinal rule of reputation management by indirectly reminding us of his fall from grace. And many criticized the ad for seeming to trivialize or excuse his misbehavior.
But, as Nike points out, Woods set a goal to regain his game stature and through hard work, he has – at least for now – accomplished it.

So does his status mean he is, literally, out of the woods? Are his recent wins and (presumably) stable relationship with Lindsay Vonn enough to wipe out the bimbo eruptions and hostage-video-style apology of three years ago?

Probably. Woods is now the game’s number-one player again, which is a tangible and indisputable achievement, and one that at times seemed impossible. My guess is that if he wins the Masters next month, it will clinch his comeback. Because most of us, even casual fans, now really want him to win.

Life doesn’t give us many mulligans, but Woods has earned this. There are few stories more irresistible to the media – and the public – than redemption on such a grand scale. Tiger Woods is a just a shot away from climbing back from the longest, toughest, and most painful match of his life.

Have Press Agents Become "Suppress" Agents?

Recently I attended an awards luncheon where a prominent PR woman was honored for her fierce protectiveness of her clients and her way of shutting out press who didn’t promise positive coverage. It made me wonder about the guard-dog publicist in the age of social media.

A few days later, I read the New York Times feature about entertainment publicists who struggle to rein in their clients on Twitter and other social platforms, often with limited success. (Are you listening, Gilbert Gottfried?)

Is the publicist as gatekeeper an anachronism? Maybe it should be.

Of course, we all want to do well by our clients, and that can mean blocking media access or counseling against certain actions. And I know it’s standard operating procedure in Hollywood, where celebrity representation has always meant painstaking image crafting and aggressive press management.

But, in becoming “suppress agents,” entertainment publicists (and some corporate communicators) may be going too far. First, they miss opportunities to convey the human dimension of their clients, and to actually build something like authentic engagement with fans.  And when access is too limited or the image too divorced from reality, they might just be setting them up for a fall.

Think back to Tiger Woods. His drive into the rough might have been smoother if it hadn’t contrasted so sharply with the carefully crafted image of Woods as a loyal family man and a paragon of self-restraint.
And one of the reasons Charlie Sheen’s outburst was so fascinating was that it felt so real. I, for one, am tired of the bland diet of banal profiles, puffy writearounds and praise for brilliant colleagues. Sheen’s unfiltered outbursts were like juicy red meat. As Entertainment Weekly‘s James Hibberd wrote, “Well, at least he’s not reciting the same carefully crafted humility that we hear from everybody else.” It’s true.

Where can we get a break from those overscripted moments? The answer seems to be Donald Trump and Snooki. I wish there were something in between.

Every publicist wants to help clients be the best possible versions of themselves. But there needs to be something genuine at the core. Sometimes  you can just feel the journalist struggling to eke out a spontaneous moment. It’s not to terrible to show your client’s humanity, and in the age of social media, it just may be inevitable.