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Whether it’s good news or bad news, there’s a right way and wrong way to handle it. In this new recurring feature, The Hollywood Reporter assembles an expert panel of top industry publicists to weigh in on the rollout (or fallout!) behind the biggest headlines du jour.
This week’s topics: Ariana Grande’s Doughnutgate versus the Ben Affleck–Jennifer Garner divorce.
Since the doughnut-shop security video of Grande appearing to lick display-counter doughnuts before loudly proclaiming “I hate America” went viral on Tuesday, the pop songstress issued a Twitter apology statement on Wednesday (in which she said her comments were about the country’s nutrition habits) and then posted a YouTube apology video on Thursday night. Was the second apology necessary?
Howard Bragman, Fifteen Minutes PR chairman and founder: The second apology was a direct result of her first apology being so pathetic. I always tell people it should be about 100% responsibility, not a long, rambling, equivocating apology.
Jim Bates, Sitrick & Co. senior executive: As a rule, one apology is enough. You just need one that hits the right notes and the right messages. Think about what you want to convey to people and move on.
How should she have handled the situation right off the bat?
Bragman: “I screwed up, it’s not going to happen again, I’ve learned and I apologize.” Then follow it up with some sort of action: Go volunteer at a food bank, work with Michelle Obama on teenage obesity, do a concert to promote awareness.
Bates: I think a statement or interview would probably have done it. Generally speaking, once you begin apologizing, you give [the controversy] more life and keep it going.
What was worse: the doughnut-licking or the comments about America?
Bates: People are so sensitive about patriotism. We’re in a political season now, and people are much more likely to jump on something like that. [At least] she is American. If she’d been a foreigner, it would have been much more damaging.
Bragman: The whole thing was skeezy. Some people were offended by the America comments, some by the doughnut-licking, some by the fat-shaming. It was sort of the definition of icky.
Would it have been better to say nothing and wait for it to blow over?
Bates: I don’t know, it was getting a lot of traction. The easiest thing to do is just let it blow over, but that’s more what the person wants to hear than what needs to be done. Some people don’t do anything about it, and [the situation] gets worse.
Bragman: No, she needed to apologize because it was out there and it was so public. And because she’s huge on social media, anything she does becomes huge on social media.
How does this impact her career and public image?
Bragman: It’s not fun for her and her team to be dealing with, but it’s not a huge deal. It’s a big social media story, but it wasn’t racist and it wasn’t homophobic. In other words, this was more “controversy” than “crisis.”
Bates: She can very easily let her talent speak for itself. It’s not like she committed a horrible crime or did anything really drastic. It was a youthful experience and nothing more.
How would you grade the handling of Doughnutgate?
Bragman: C-minus. It was well below-average. She tried harder at the end, but she’s hoping this story goes away over the weekend and someone else does something stupid.
Bates: I don’t want to second-guess things. Her team needs to focus on what to do next. She’s gonna get asked about this in interviews, and she’ll have to be ready with a response and not go beyond what they want to say.
Moving on to something else that could have dominated the headlines but turned out to be pretty swiftly handled: the Bennifer 2.0 split. This couple combated divorce rumors for years. How should a splitting couple depict their relationship before they’re ready to announce?
Bragman: Everything is perfect until it’s not. There are no gray areas in these situations.
Joe Quenqua: DKC PR executive vice president and head of entertainment: [Rumors] have to become white noise. They’re entitled to privacy, but they’ve actually been somewhat honest about their struggles, which is really admirable and takes a bit of the shock out.
One detail about the announcement that stands out is that Affleck and Garner will keep living together. How does that impact the public perception of their split?
Bragman: It reinforces its civility, and that they’re looking out for the best interests of the children.
Quenqua: I actually don’t think that’s a PR move. That’s for the family, and probably a very real decision that they let the public in on, knowing that people are going to be chasing them down and trying to figure out where he’s living.
What messaging advice do you have for them going forward? How will the divorce impact their careers?
Bragman: The narrative should be “respect.” Focus on the career and personal causes, and don’t discuss the relationship. I don’t worry about either of them. They’re both talented and will do fine.
Quenqua: Their lives are going to intersect both personally and professionally, so their reps should continue to work in tandem. The career impact will be negligible. He certainly was involved in some very high-profile relationships prior, so it’s not as if America is only familiar with them as a couple.
Bragman: A. It’s almost always best to announce together — it implies civility and respect. Add to that the fact that they did it on a holiday week, for less drama.
Quenqua: A+, focusing on what is controllable and achievable by their teams. Should the children ever have to be cognizant of the stuff that their mommy and daddy said about each other, they’ve handled this with complete grace.
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