Why do some quickly recover from bad behavior while other careers go off the rails?
We periodically see celebrities exhibiting bad behavior: from racist remarks, drug abuse and domestic violence to steroid use, drunk driving, shop lifting and even gun possession. The more famous or distinct a celebrity's brand and loyal their following, the more likelihood there will be extensive coverage of their troubles. And for repeat offenders, the media storm and public following can multiply quickly. Some are one time offenders, others repeatedly test their boundaries. Some use poor judgment or commit minor offenses, while others repeat bad behavior and refuse to take responsibility.
When thinking about who to cover for this issue, there were so many - perhaps too many - to choose from. Names that came to mind: Rob Lowe, Kristen Stewart, Hugh Grant, Jude Law, Martha Stewart, Lindsay Lohan, Robert Downey, Jr., Justin Beiber, Michael Vick, Chris Brown...the possibilities are sadly endless.
In this issue of Marketing Coach we take a deeper look at the scandals and reputation management of four celebrities: Mel Gibson, Phil Robertson, Paula Deen and Lance Armstrong. Their stories garnered prime media attention and had staying power with extensive retelling and rumors. A few unfolded over a period of years, while others were shorter term media incidents -- most with longer term reputation implications and interesting comparisons between them.
What he did: Once dubbed America's Favorite Movie Star, Mel Gibson is now known primarily for his litany of hate-filled meltdowns. His troubles began in 2006, when he was arrested for drunk driving in Malibu and made derogatory comments about Jews and women to the arresting officer. The incident dominated the news for days. While this singular incident tarnished Gibson's reputation and created enemies, it did not prevent the super-wealthy megastar from pursuing his projects. However, repeated offenses such as the 2010 release of racist, sexist, profanity-filled tape recorded calls to his then-girlfriend and another similar voicemail in 2012 signaled a possibly irreparable blow to his career.
Impact on his career: While his meltdowns were widely publicized, the Braveheart star has continued to make movies, although fewer and farther between than in his career prime. Today Gibson has become persona non grata in Hollywood and now lives in Costa Rica. His huge success 20 years ago has given him the wherewithal to create his own productions, but as one critic said: "if he invests too much time explaining his position and responding to fallout, he will only lose more fans."
Can his reputation be salvaged? Comebacks are best orchestrated and most successful when the offender can demonstrate a believable change of heart (not just because of self-pity) and implement an ongoing and consistent series of public, charitable, personal and/or professional rehabilitative activities. Actions must depict that an individual is remorseful and making a meaningful turnaround. With his repeated transgressions, Gibson has cemented the public's opinion that he is unrepentant and not likely to change any time soon.
What he did: A&E TV's Duck Dynasty is a hit reality series about the Robertsons, a Louisiana family with a multi-million-dollar duck-products empire, strong conservative religious beliefs and a self-proclaimed "redneck" perspective. In December 2013, patriarch Phil Robertson gave an interview to GQ in which he compared homosexuality to terrorism, and declared that blacks in the pre-Civil Rights era were "happy."
The story went viral, generating demands for cancellation from viewers, bloggers, gay-rights groups and the NAACP. There were also angry defenders (including Alaska ex-Gov. Sarah Palin and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal), who claimed a free-speech argument. A conservative Christian group filed a pro-Robertson petition with more than 250,000 signatures.
Impact on his career: A&E suddenly faced a major crisis surrounding the hugely successful show. They reacted by announcing that Robertson would be suspended from filming "indefinitely." The incident launched a nationwide debate about tolerance, sexism, racism and religion. Robertson issued a statement reaffirming his beliefs and that he did not personally disrespect anyone. His family, also cast members, supported him. Then they all went silent.
Can his career weather the incident? Less than a week later, A&E Network announced it was lifting the suspension and bringing Robertson back to join his family on the show. The show's fifth season premiere featuring Robertson drew 8.5 million viewers, a steep drop from the 12 million viewers who tuned in for the fourth season premiere. These ratings were not disastrous, but it is significant that Duck Dynasty experienced a 33 percent decline in viewership among the highly sought-after demographic of 18 to 49 year olds, according to TVLine. However, while the viewership fell, the predicament did not damage the network's lucrative sponsorships.
Time will tell how long the Robertson's popularity will last. Thus far they have weathered the controversy relatively well, eluding Paula Deen's harsher fate. Unlike Deen's show which relied entirely on her persona, some critics believe the show may be helped by the fact the brand isn't only about Phil Robertson, but other entertaining family members as well. Additionally, the show may have suffered fewer consequences because Robertson's GQ comments were no surprise to fans who had been following Duck Dynasty from the beginning. As a New York Times critic said, "fulminating is what Robertson does."
What she did: The Food Network's queen of Southern cooking suffered a messy fall from her throne during the summer of 2013, following a discrimination lawsuit filed against her by a former employee. In addition to charging Deen with using racial slurs, the employee claimed that when planning a Southern style wedding Deen said she would like "a bunch of little n-----s to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties..."
The deposition was leaked and went viral creating a wave of outrage. Though Deen agreed to appear on Today to address her comments, she was initially a no-show. The day the news broke she posted a video asking for forgiveness and included a brief apology, but failed to offer any explanation for her offensive language or detail of which mistakes she regretted. She followed with another video blaming her discriminatory remarks on her age and Southern upbringing.
Impact on her career: Just hours after posting her second video, The Food Network announced it would not renew Deen's contract. After the show, Wal-Mart and Caesars Entertainment ended their sponsorships with Deen. Within weeks, her estimated $20 million empire - comprising the TV show, books, and endorsements of kitchenware, mattresses and diabetes drugs - had largely collapsed.
Can she revive her career? While Deen still retained loyal fans who rallied on her behalf, she realized the need for a serious fix and quickly assembled a new team to begin planning and attempting a comeback. In mid-January of this year, Celebrity Cruises featured her cooking aboard the ship Reflection. In February she hosted a one-day live cooking show at Samuel's Grande Manor near Buffalo, NY, where she plans to open her new headquarters. The Manor is a wedding mill that holds 1,600 people. Deen's website promises a "delicious Southern feast" for attendees.
Why has Deen had a tougher time turning around her calamity than Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson? PR experts speculate that it is because her reckless remarks about race contradicted her brand: the sunny, sweet, welcoming personality TV fans were used to seeing. Her gaffes made many fans and business associates question her authenticity. For Robertson - in comparison - being a redneck with unfiltered, politically incorrect views was integral to his persona; to fans, it was the source of his appeal. By making racist, homophobic remarks, he was just being himself; the Phil fans knew and expected.
What he did: After years of denying doping allegations, suing former teammates, and bullying everyone who got in his way, Lance Armstrong admitted in 2013 that he was a cheat. Oprah Winfrey hosted his on-air confession over two consecutive nights. But many crisis experts feel that Armstrong's carefully crafted and cagey responses did more harm than good, leaving an impression that he was still being untruthful. One of his lowest moments was when he recounted calling the wife of a fellow cyclist "crazy" and "a bitch" when she exposed that she and her husband had overheard him admitting to drug use. In another bizarre moment, he admitted he couldn't remember everyone he had sued because he had sued so many people.
Impact on his career: A SurveyUSA post-interview poll found that only 17 percent of respondents thought he was being completely honest. Media experts said that his answers and body language showed minimally sincere regret for those he hurt, for his charity Livestrong that was forced into crisis mode, the sponsors he betrayed, and the millions of fans to whom he had lied.
Does he have a future in the public eye? After the confession, Armstrong sought a fresh start and in 2013 returned to cycling by competing in a state-wide bike race in Iowa. Having lost his credibility and the tools to contribute meaningfully, he stepped down from Livestrong's board indefinitely. Considering Armstrong's perceived lack of sincerity, the quest for redemption and forgiveness could prove a long and uphill ride.
Marketing Coach is a publication of Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications, Inc. ICCC helps companies build reputations and differentiate in a competitive market through brand building, public relations and strategic communications.
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