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Illustration by Eloku/Shutterstock
Oct 9, 2018

Don’t Do Bad Things

And if you do, know why your problem can’t just “disappear.”

Cristiano Ronaldo has reportedly hired a firm of reputation management specialists after a woman accused him of rape. This strategy shouldn’t come as a surprise. Obviously, the first option when a celebrity ends up in a sticky situation is to lawyer up, but the hiring of PR people like me at the same time to clean up the resulting mess is becoming increasingly common. One famous example of this is Harvey Weinstein, who hired Hollywood reputation guru Michael Sitrick.

While this still raises eyebrows, it makes sense. You need a blended approach, as the secret to burying bad news nowadays is to employ a combination of strategies. Yes, lawyers have NDAs, superinjunctions and legal threats, but the PR profession has an equally impressive set of tools in its arsenal, including classic PR in terms of trying to mitigate the story as much as possible and argue for things to be taken away, and search engine optimization, including Google’s right to be forgotten.

The first amendment gives sacred protective freedoms to people in terms of free speech, so an NDA doesn’t mean they won’t say certain things—but it does mean they are in breach of contract if they do. Breaking a superinjunction is a criminal offense. But PR firms can be quietly working behind the scenes to bury bad news and present the celebrity in his or her best light, attacking the problem from both sides.

Our clients are high-profile individuals and used to getting their way, and whenever they send lawyers’ letters to national newspapers, they are always shocked at how strongly the newspapers push back, and the vociferous nature of the answering missives. It almost becomes like an arms race in terms of who is prepared to threaten what, and who blinks first. Having been involved in dozens of legal reputational disputes over the last five years, the psychology of both sides is fascinating—what do you threaten and when? How far do you go?

All of this boils down to one ultimate truth: Don’t do bad things. If you don’t want to end up on the front page of tomorrow’s newspapers for clubbing baby seals to death, ring the crew that is on its way to the Arctic now and call it off. Don’t go ahead with it and then issue a flowery press release saying, “We’ve just formed an international seal protection organization, and we’re committed to a 5 percent reduction in all seal deaths.” People see through it.

The best way to make things right is to have a plan. Deal with the situation in plain language and with simple behaviour: Atone for what’s gone wrong and do your best to put it right. Because no matter what you do, you can’t just make it disappear.

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