Celebrity Crises: ‘You cannot hide anything from the public’

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Drew Barrymore and Oprah Winfrey face PR crises in light of the Writer's Guild Strike and the Maui fires. Illustration by Annie Vong.

In September, there were multiple instances of celebrities getting themselves into trouble with the public. In early September, actress Drew Barrymore decided to continue her talk show, “The Drew Barrymore Show,” without writers due to the ongoing Writer’s Guild strike and Oprah Winfrey received criticism after the Maui fires.

Barrymore’s continuation of the show despite the Writer’s Guild strike led to massive public outroar, and members of the writers’ and actors’ guild picketed outside the show’s production building. In response, Barrymore took to Instagram to issue an apology. “I wanted to do this because … this is bigger than me,” says Barrymore, “I thought: ‘If we can go on during a global pandemic and everything that the world has experienced through 2020, why would this sideline us?’” Barrymore deleted the video hours after posting due to further backlash. 

Julianna Jovillar, a communications studies graduate student, dissects Barrymore’s apology video, writing, “Her lack of makeup and coordination, which can be attributed to an attempt of pathos—of seeming genuine to the audience—only comes off as disorganized. She repeats statements, and though she ‘apologizes,’ she never says to who or why … There are cuts in her video that indicate she spliced the video together, which further removes authenticity from her message; if it is spliced together, then her words are more planned than she is trying to imply.” 

Soon after Barrymore’s apology video, the writers’ guild was able to successfully negotiate a contract with major studios. Many writers resumed working, but this was not the case for Barrymore’s show. According to The Hollywood Reporter, three head writers – Chelsea White, Cristina Kinon and Liz Koe – refused to return.

Aya Shata, a professor teaching journalism and media studies and head of UNLV’s Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), shares her expertise. Shata shares, “Timing is everything, especially in crisis communications. The first thing I always communicate to my students is to not only communicate early, but time is a main element with the crisis. If you wait, people will start getting their answers from someone else. People start making their own conclusion, and then it gets really ugly. And even if you make an apology video, it is not as powerful and influential as when you make it in the right time. When you show this hesitancy between ‘I’ll have my show’ or ‘I won’t have my show,’ this hesitancy shows that you’re just making the decision because you are afraid of the public reaction, not because you genuinely care about the issue … People can tell the difference.”

The so-called “apology video” is a relatively new phenomena due to the mass usage of social media and public relations consultation to deal with damage control in a crisis. Shata says, “Nowadays, you cannot hide anything from the public. We have social media. We have everyone, now, taking photos and videos … People’s level of awareness, as a community and as a society, is on the rise.” Shata notes that the public no longer believes what they’re being told, saying, “We tend to analyze it; we tend to critique it; we tend to see if we accept it or not.”

During the Maui fires, residents asked permission to cut through Oprah Winfrey’s 1,000 acre property to flee the fires according to Business Insider. However, as they were fleeing, many realized Winfrey’s estate encapsulates the land and wealth inequality in Hawaii. While residents, locals, and native Hawaiians are struggling to afford and find housing, non-natives, like Winfrey, are taking acres of land for themselves and raising property values. In response, Winfrey and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson created a relief fund for victims of the Maui fire with a combined $10 million donation, but some Americans were upset that these wealthy individuals were asking for help from average Americans in the first place. “Tell me I did not just see a billionaire standing next to a multi-millionaire begging the average, every-day citizen for donations when they can barely get by,” says Tik-tok account KeYeshua in a tiktok that went viral with many comments showing support of the sentiment. Actor and comedian Nick Cannon shared his opinion by saying, “it’s in poor taste for a billionaire to ask anyone for money.” 

Shata says, “People expect, when you are rich or you have money, that you will do the donation yourself. When she asks someone to donate money, she’s trying to bring the community together to actually make a difference because you use your own influence, followers, and fans … This is where the error is. If you don’t communicate your efforts, if you don’t communicate the reasons behind why you do what you do, people will never know. When you leave it up to the conclusion of the people, there tends to be a lot of different misunderstandings that can happen and then it leads to crisis and misinterpretation. And then, when you don’t reply, skepticism arises and it tends to get ugly very quickly.”

A common theme in the public backlash to these public relations crises and apology videos is that they seem out of touch with the average American’s day-to-day struggles.  Barrymore, by attempting to navigate around the writers’ strike, has now damaged her reputation among fans. Winfrey, in owning property on native land and asking for donations despite being a billionaire, has joined the ranks of out-of-touch celebrities. As these instances of celebrity blunders become more frequent, Americans become even more aware and critical of public relations crisis rhetoric meant to sway public image.

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