No Bad PR? A Single Story Felled These Three Giants

Some say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The very idea seems harmless enough, right?  After all, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

But most people I know who work in PR vehemently disagree with thoughts like these. Would anyone who’s been canceled say that all exposure is good?

To illustrate, I thought I’d share a few examples of some high profile figures who suffered career-limiting consequences after just one bad story in 2023.

Rehabilitate a Royal Image? No Sweat!

Celebrity: Prince Andrew

Situation: The Prince had been caught up In the Jeffrey Epstein scandal. The press reported their friendship, and allegations that Andrew had sex with a 17-year-old girl he met through Epstein.  

Then, Epstein was found dead in his NY prison cell, following his conviction and life sentence. This amped up press attention on the sordid affair, and all those who’d cavorted with Epstein, including the Prince.

Leading up to that time a PR firm associated with the Crown had been putting out feelers for an on-air TV interview with British TV show Newsnight, to discuss and highlight Andrew’s philanthropic work, according to a story in The Guardian. One conidition was that there could be no questions about Epstein, which became a stumbling block in the negotiations.

After Epstein’s death, all conditions were removed, and the Prince agreed to a wide-ranging interview with Newsnight host Emily Maitlis. Presumably, he wanted one Hail Mary to clear the air and rebuild his tarnished image.

The interview:  Most know by now that it didn’t go as planned. The Guardian reported:

A Pizza Express in Woking. The inability to sweat. A tendency to be “too honourable”. Prince Andrew’s 2019 Newsnight interview was a bonanza of bizarre excuses – in which he disastrously tried to defend himself from allegations that he had sex with a 17-year-old girl trafficked by his friend Jeffrey Epstein. Greeted with a riot of disbelief, anger and meme-making by the public, it was the most explosive royal interview of the decade.

The Guardian

The fallout: Far from clearing the air, the interview led to much more bad press and other repercussions. Virginia Giuffre, Andrew’s accuser, decided to sue the Prince after the story ran. And the Crown stripped him of his public duties.

A Rock Icon’s Victory Lap-Turned-Face-Plant

Celebrity: Rolling Stone Magazine cofounder Jann Wenner 

Situation: Jann sat for an interview with NY Times reporter David Marchese, to promote his new book, The Masters, a compendium of his interviews with rock legends over the decades. This story resulted. When confronted with the fact that all his subjects were white and male, Jann dug a deep hole for himself,

It’s not that they’re not creative geniuses. It’s not that they’re inarticulate… You know, Joni was not a philosopher of rock ’n’ roll… Of Black artists — you know, Stevie Wonder, genius, right? I suppose when you use a word as broad as “masters,” the fault is using that word. Maybe Marvin Gaye, or Curtis Mayfield? I mean, they just didn’t articulate at that level.

Jann Wenner, via NY Times

The fallout: The article generated lots of bad buzz for Wenner.  It revived stories about the male-dominated culture of the magazine, and the lack of women and minorities represented in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which he helped found, and served as a board member.

Jann Wenner did issue a full-throated apology via a press rep for his publisher. It seemed sincere but was amazingly inarticulate for a legendary publisher and writer who launched and nurtured the careers of greats like Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe.

Among the consequences? Wenner was swiftly booted from the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

CNN Exec’s Vanities Bonfire

Executive: Chris Licht, former CNN CEO 

The situation: Warner Bros. CEO David Zaslav hired Chris Licht, an accomplished TV exec, to lead CNN following the forced resignation of Jeff Zucker. Licht had previously produced successes such as Morning Joe and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Soon after, Licht started speaking with Tim Alberta of The Atlantic, giving the reporter full access for a year.

The story: The resulting 15K word piece, entitled The Story Behind the Meltdown at CNN, was probably not what Chris Licht had in mind.

It chronicled his efforts to build ratings for CNN by remaking its editorial mission. Granted, a tough job, as Zucker left big shoes to fill.  Licht endeavored to make CNN less MSNBC-like, and more open to views from the other side (ahem, Fox News, anyone?), culminating in the disastrous Town Hall with Trump. These things, other bad decisions, and his management style sowed fear and loathing in his newsroom,  making a tough job tougher, and leading to bad press before the massive Atlantic story.

Podcaster Kara Swisher summed up the article pretty well.

There were so many devastating quotes. To embed a reporter of such quality in that organization for a year? I don’t even know why he thought that was a good idea… He seems to lack self awareness.

Kara Swisher, on The Pivot

The fallout:  the piece (and more bad press in its wake) made a tough job impossible. Licht fell on his sword, and apologized to his staff before the axe fell.

Dishonourable Mention

I thought I’d share a couple of other examples that happened more recently.

PR by Lawyer

Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, questioned the presidents of three prestigious universities at  a hearing about antisemitism on college campuses.

It was not a trial but it sure seemed like one, as she grilled each in turn.  Here’s a clip from C-SPAN.

Many across media criticized the presidents for their carefully crafted, lawyerly answers to questions abourt whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates their schools’ policies. University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill resigned shortly afterward. Claudine Gay of Harvard stepped down this Tuesday.

Linda Yaccarino whiffs Code Conference interview

Context: X CEO Linda Yaccarino appeared at the Code Conference for an interview with Julie Boorstin. Linda’s performance was roundly criticized – she seemed comabtive, tense and somewhat clueless.

In Linda’s defense, she was blindsided by a last minute addition to the roster, Yoel Roth, a former X employee who has been an outspoken critic of Musk.  Yoel spoke with Kara Swisher before Linda’s interview.  He mentioned death threats, X’s current engagement, and said Yaccarino “should be worried.”

“I think many people in this room were not fully prepared for me to still come out on the stage,” she told interviewer Julia Boorstin, senior media and tech correspondent at CNBC. 

There was lots of bad press in the wake of this interview. OK, she was not fired or canceled but I believe has kept a lower profile since then, at least with media.

Final Takeaways

These people did not have to take the interviews in most cases. All went in with hubris and clearly little prep. The examples emphasize the importance of good PR counsel and media training.

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2 Responses to No Bad PR? A Single Story Felled These Three Giants

  1. Paul Geller says:

    Will Smith is a good one from last year.

    Do Kanye, Sam Bankman Fried, or Alec Baldwin count?

    Can these implosions ever be reversed so it becomes a net positive later on, where the initial (bad) exposure combines with positive PR down the road?

  2. Bob Geller says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Paul. Good examples above. My focus was one hit blunders. Yes, there’s always a chance for exemption.

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