Can Ellen's "Be Kind" Brand Survive a Not-Very-Nice Scandal?

ONE TIME USE ONLY-23biz_ellen_W_main-H 2020
Degeneres: FOX via Getty Images. Show: NBC/Photofest.

After a report of “toxic” culture on DeGeneres’ daytime hit prompted apologies and housecleaning, image experts and insiders analyze the potential for lasting damage and whether her playbook is working.

Ellen DeGeneres' Twitter profile picture looks like a lot of other COVID-era ones. The illustrated image features the talk show host, her signature blond crop and piercing blue eyes on display, wearing a mask. But the written message across the pandemic-friendly face covering that was once considered her mantra is likely now to elicit derision and eye rolls: "Be kind to one another."

DeGeneres, who built her talk show career on being "nice," is facing a crisis that once would have seemed unfathomable: accusations that she fostered a "toxic" environment on the set of her top-rated eponymous talk show. A July Buzzfeed investigation — which detailed claims of intimidation, racism and sexism levied by current and former employees of The Ellen Show — was the most damaging in a series of reports that painted a dark portrait of the host once considered America's sweetheart. Parent company WarnerMedia launched an investigation that's led to the ouster of three top producers and additional benefits for staffers, including more paid time off. With the investigation nearing its end, the question now is how severe the setback is for DeGeneres — who last summer extended her deal with the studio until 2022 — and what she can do about it.

"This is certainly damaging to her brand," says John Hellerman, who runs his own PR firm that specializes in crisis communication. Over the years, DeGeneres has garnered a reputation for being the upbeat, playful daytime host with a penchant for funky dance moves and celebrity jump scares. "Her brand before this was rooted in kindness, which is why I think it was a shock to people in the way that Matt Lauer was a shock to people," says another crisis communications strategist, Jamie Diaferia, who works with celebrity clients he isn't able to disclose. He notes that while the accusations against the two are different in kind, there are still similarities in how they were perceived by the general public before their scandals. "People see them as these friendly, happy on-air personalities, and then you find out that there's more beneath the surface."

With her carefully curated image taking a hit, DeGeneres is now faced with having to redeem her reputation before it becomes too tarnished, something public relations and crisis management experts say hinge on her next moves. According to these individuals, one of the most important steps a celebrity can take in defending their character in a situation like this is to respond to the criticism quickly.

"When celebrities get into these kinds of situations, what we've noticed over time is that the sooner they react to it publicly, the less damage occurs to their perception," says Henry Schafer, executive vp of Q Scores, which measures celebrities' likability by polling a representative sample of the population. He points to Tiger Woods as an example of someone who waited too long to address his infidelity scandal and whose public image consequently suffered for quite some time. Kelsey Grammer, on the other hand, repeatedly responded to negative stories about divorce, drugs and alcohol abuse right away and never suffered a notable drop in public likability, says Schafer.

Sources close to DeGeneres say that she hasn't been able to publicly discuss the allegations while the investigation is ongoing. The host was, however, able to address the situation in a staff letter two weeks after the claims were published. "She talked to her team as soon as she was able to," says one insider. Some image consultants argue that the lapse in time made her lose hold of the narrative, though others are less concerned with the timing of the statement than its contents. In the email, DeGeneres acknowledged that her name was on the show and she therefore takes responsibility for everything that happened — but she also claimed that she's delegated a lot over the years and "relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I'd want them done," adding: "Clearly some didn't." Those individuals, she claimed, were "speaking on my behalf and misrepresenting who I am."

The note was seen by some as more of a finger-pointing endeavor than a sincere apology. "I don't want to call it botched, but it wasn't good," says Diaferia, who thinks the crucial part about taking responsibility for what transpired on the show was undercut by other portions of the statement that seemed to pass the blame. "I didn't think the apology achieved what she was probably trying to achieve."

Others took issue with how much she claimed to not know. "I don't think in this day and age the typical 'I wasn't aware, but now that I am, I'm taking steps' really works anymore. And in this situation with Ellen, it seems pretty insincere," says Hellerman, noting that rumors about the show's culture have circulated for years. "This wasn't something that just occurred. This sort of counter whisper brand of hers was years in the making." DeGeneres was even asked about "anonymous complaints that she isn't always kind to those she works with" in a 2018 New York Times profile aptly titled "Ellen DeGeneres Is Not as Nice as You Think." She flatly denied the accusations at the time, saying, "That bugs me if someone is saying that because it's an outright lie."

For some Ellen Show employees, it's been one of the hardest aspects of her rebuttal to swallow. "It's somewhat striking to me to watch it all unfold when it almost looks like she's going to be fine," says one former Ellen Show employee. "It seems someone is going to have to directly tie her to [the incidents] for her to go down because she's done a really good job separating herself from them, despite the fact that I don't think anyone actually genuinely believes she didn't know about them."

Merits of her July statement aside, most agree that DeGeneres has been following the playbook very carefully, taking all the steps you'd expect an embattled celebrity in her position to take. The steady trickle of big-name celebrities who emerged to show their support for DeGeneres? That's in the playbook, too, say experts. It's likely why Kevin Hart, Katy Perry, Jay Leno, Diane Keaton and others took to social media in recent weeks to defend the talk show host, recounting their own positive experiences on the show. (It's worth noting that other actors, including Brad Garrett and Lea Thompson, took to Twitter to back claims of DeGeneres' alleged mistreatment of guests.)

PR gurus say the #IStandByEllen movement, which seems to have been started by DeGeneres' wife, Portia de Rossi — who appeared with her in a 2020 Super Bowl ad for Amazon Alexa — had all the signs of a coordinated effort. "It's all about correcting it in real time so that it doesn't become fact. You issue a statement, and while you have the investigation go on and hopefully exonerate you, you line up some third-party champions," says Diaferia, who notes that it's likely someone from DeGeneres' camp asked other stars to speak out on her behalf.

For as good-intentioned as the shows of support may have been, some found them ineffective at best and tone deaf at worst. "Does Katy Perry know what's going on behind the scenes? Does Katy Perry know how she acts when she's not happy?" asks Herald PR's Juda Engelmayer, who is best known for advising convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein after the disgraced producer was accused of being a serial rapist. "What about people who deal with her every single day — her producer, her manager, the coffee delivery guy in the office? [It's about] the people who get to see things that the public doesn't get to see."

Of course, another crucial factor in DeGeneres' ability to bounce back are the actual results of the investigation, which is said to be wrapping up. Though it may seem obvious, that fact can often get lost in a social media-dominated culture that's quick to condemn, say some communications specialists. "If the investigation largely exonerates her and is focused on the behind-the-scenes behavior of other individuals, I think she's going to be able to survive this," says Diaferia, who notes that advertisers pulling out of The Ellen Show will also be key. So far, none have done so, and there hasn't even been a substantial movement for marketers to boycott. Adds Diaferia, "As long as there's nothing too damaging in that investigation, she can emerge from this with a little bit of time. This is somebody who people are rooting for."

For what it's worth, DeGeneres does seem to have a significant amount of public support. According to The Q Scores Company, about one in four consumers who are familiar with her say that she is one of their favorite personalities. That said, her negative Q score did rise six points between January and July, while her positive Q score dropped five points. The change has made DeGeneres more of what Schafer likes to call a "stir the pot" personality. But since the company didn't begin gathering their most recent data until just before the news reports became widespread, it's unlikely that the negative press impacted DeGeneres' favorability metrics, though Schafer notes it is possible that rumblings about the show's culture on social media and in the tabloids somehow made their way into the results.

While the real impact of the incident on DeGeneres' public image won't be known until the company goes back into the field to collect new data in January 2021, sources close to the show say that it has done its own internal research over the past few weeks, examining the effect the scandal has had on her fan base. They found that the impact is negligible and that DeGeneres retains strong support among her viewers. Adds Schafer, "She's always been a highly likable personality and is still one of the most popular show hosts out there."

Experts suggest that the more she's able to talk openly about the controversy, the less damaging it will ultimately be for her. Earlier this week, she took the opportunity to deliver a more emotional speech when she announced the firings of top producers Ed Glavin, Kevin Leman and Jonathan Norman on an all-hands Zoom call. "I feel like I've kind of let the ball drop," she said, reminding everyone she's human, too. "I'm a multilayered person, and I try to be the best person I can be and try to learn from my mistakes." For some, it's still not enough. "She needs to show more contrition and accountability publicly," says Hellerman. "What she has to do to repair her brand is become the standard by which other shows move forward with this type of scandal. So far, it's failed miserably."

Of course, many will be watching to see if and how DeGeneres addresses the behind-the-scenes controversy when The Ellen Show comes back next month for its 18th season. Sources close to production say the host plans to address the allegations on air during her first show back on Sept. 14. Public relations professionals agree it's in her best interest to do so, as it offers a quick and direct way to salvage her reputation. "The fact that she's visible on a daily basis helps her brand because it gives her greater opportunities to create more positive perceptions of herself," says Schafer. "It's not like she's an actress who only gets seen every six months or every year in a movie. If she wants to address something on her show, she can. That's the benefit she has as a daytime personality."

Ultimately, how much DeGeneres is able to rebound from the controversy will depend on how much she wants to. Many are quick to point out that given all the success she's had throughout her career (she's estimated to be worth $330 million), she could very well walk away from the show at any point — but that it's likely not in her nature to do so. "For someone like her who has fought as much as she did and endured as much as she did to get to the top, to go out under these circumstances would probably not be very appealing," says Diaferia. "Nobody wants to have their reputation tarnished like this and then go off into the sunset just because they have a lot of money. I'd imagine she'd want to fight this and get her reputation back so this is not the last thing people say about her."

But, he adds, "If the worst they can say is that she was really mean to people behind the scenes, well, you could say that about a thousand different people in Hollywood."

This story appears in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.