As a PR professional who works with celebrity clients and has significant crisis management experience, I sympathized with Will Smith’s publicist as I watched Smith slap Chris Rock across the face, live on stage during the Oscars.
Watching it unfold, I instantly felt a pit in my stomach and knew that my PR colleagues across the globe were feeling the same unease.
Celebrity PR professionals are well trained to respond to crises, but they can’t do it in a vacuum. They need willing, humble and cooperative clients to listen to their advice, and respond quickly and appropriately. I knew the next few days and weeks would be incredibly challenging for Smith’s publicity team.
If you didn’t see the incident yourself, you can check out this recap. Journalists, influencers and the court of public opinion are still debating what happened and why. But I think we can all agree that it was a PR nightmare that could have been avoided had Will Smith acted and reacted better at every turn.
How Is This Situation Relevant to us?
Whether or not you care about Will Smith’s career, there is much to learn from how this particular crisis played out. Most business leaders recognize the importance of reputation management, and “the slap” is a classic case of a crisis that rapidly spun out of control.
You may never attend the Oscars or have the nation’s eyes on you, but you’re still responsible for managing your emotions and protecting the reputation you have worked hard to earn.
We’re all vulnerable to a PR crisis at one point or another, and it’s essential to be prepared if or when our time comes. Analyzing “the slap” and its aftermath is a reminder to each of us to show up better when adversity strikes.
Let’s look at each phase of the incident and look at how Will Smith could have acted differently to diffuse the situation from a crisis management perspective.
While it may have been unbecoming for Chris Rock to joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair loss, given her public struggles with the autoimmune disease alopecia, everyone knows that comedians often push the boundaries of good taste. Many of us can empathize with having an emotional reaction to a person disrespecting one of our loved ones. Still, Will Smith’s response was inappropriate and unprofessional and undermined the evening’s mission to honor the best of the best in the profession.
From the moment of the joke to the moment of the slap, there were many opportunities for Will Smith to course-correct and choose to respond differently. He had to get up out of his seat, walk to the end of the aisle, step onto the stage, approach Chris Rock, and slap him, turn around and head back to his seat. It wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction; it was a deliberate choice, a public statement.
A Better Crisis Management Approach would be. . .
Taking a step back and thinking before acting impulsively. Will Smith had an opportunity to be the bigger person. He could have chosen that moment to defend his wife and bring awareness to the struggles of people living with alopecia. He could have turned it into a PR win, but instead, activated a PR nightmare.
The Acceptance Speech
Ironically, later in the evening, Will Smith won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in King Richard, a biopic about Richard Williams, Serena and Venus Williams’ father.
Will’s acceptance speech was a perfect opportunity to apologize to Chris Rock and the audience in the theater and the viewers at home. Instead, he made a far-fetched comparison of his actions to those of the character he portrayed in the film.
The speech was overly emotional and drawn-out, missing the mark entirely and leaving people scratching their heads. Using this opportunity as an attempt to explain and excuse his actions did an injustice to Richard Williams and cheapened the moment. It was his second #PRFail of the evening.
A Better Crisis Management Approach would have been. . .
Offering up a genuine apology as soon as possible. In attempting to defend an indefensible action, Will Smith looked even more ridiculous.
There was a reason Smith’s publicist kept returning to his seat during commercial breaks. I would bet that she was counseling him to take ownership of his actions, and apologize before making his Oscar victory part of the continued narrative to explain actions that were indefensible.
Following the Oscars, Will Smith attended the Vanity Fair after-party and stayed in the public eye. His son took to Twitter to defend his father’s actions by tweeting, “And That’s How We Do It.”
Both choices drew further scrutiny to the PR crisis, adding fuel to a potentially career ending fire he set himself.
A Better Crisis Management Action would be. . .
Reining in family members and loved ones and shutting down external communications. Responses to a PR crisis must be thoughtful and strategic.
If Will Smith were my client, I would have advised him to avoid parties or events exposing him to journalists and paparazzi. Additionally, I would have told his family to avoid social media until he had issued a formal apology. Uncontrolled behaviors in the wake of a crisis almost always exacerbate its severity and longevity.
To apologize on Instagram, when he had so many opportunities to do so in person and in public, wasn’t nearly enough.
A Better Crisis Management Response would be. . .
Apologizing to Chris Rock immediately. Will Smith has an enormous platform, and there’s no excuse for expressing his remorse so late in the game.
Many of us agree that Smith is a brilliant actor, but I fear that his career will be irreparably tarnished by the “slap heard around the world” and its fallout. Last Friday, the Academy suspended him from virtual and live Oscar events for the next decade. He will be 63 years old the next time he attends an Oscar ceremony. We all make mistakes, but this situation is a perfect illustration of how PR crises can compound from a series of bad choices rather than a single misstep.
Not every PR crisis is preventable, but the right time to prepare for one is before it happens. If you want to work with a PR professional who will help you through your highs and lows, get in touch with me today.