Once you start dealing with the media, there’s a different language involved,” says news desk manager David Thompson; he’s seen it all a thousand times before. Thompson and his business partner, Nick Stern, run a newly-formed news and photo agency, Redthink Media (redthinkmedia.com) out of LA. But aside from providing content and photos to subscribing publications, they also deal in a highly specialized brand of public relations. While you and I would probably call it damage control or crisis management, Thompson and Stern—ever the wordsmiths—prefer to call it “media management,” and put a positive spin on things. “If you call it a ‘crisis’ you’re just waving a red flag,” Thompson explains.
In other words, when the shit hits the fan, Redthink Media swoops in, cleans up the mess and issues a timely statement to the media that the fan is sorry for having putting itself into the path of the shit, is seeking counseling, and is looking forward to spending some quiet time with its family after making a hefty donation (and highly-publicized visit) to a fan rehab facility in Malibu.
They’re the HazMat squad to the stars.
Thompson and Stern would agree that the first thing the fan—and you—would want to do once in the throes of a volatile scandal is to get immediate help. But lawyers and priests can only do so much, and anything coming from them will stink of an admission. The best bet is a media intervention by people who speak the media’s own language.
Before starting Redthink, Thompson worked as news director for OK! Magazine and before that as West Coast bureau chief for In Touch. Stern worked as a photographer and celebrity investigator for various British tabloids for 15 years before starting his own news agency, First News.
“The first and biggest mistake,” says Stern, “is to do nothing.” Second to that, Thompson cautions, is lying. “Once you start lying, it just destroys your credibility. Or what credibility you have left …”
The next step is to get the facts straight and begin the cleanup. But, Thompson warns, “A good reporter will do whatever it takes to get the story.” As Thompson recalls all too well from his magazine days, reporters will try to align themselves with the celebrity, offering aid and a soft place to land. “I’m on your side,” they might say soothingly, or “Don’t trust those other guys.” Then the feeding frenzy begins.
And remember, “When you’re talking to a reporter, there’s no such thing as ‘off the record’ … you really have to hold your cards close to your chest.” Take it from Tiger: Anything you say can and will be used comedically from now on.
The “Official Statement”
“you do have to give them something,” Thompson admits. “Because with any story, if there’s nothing, then there’s a void. The reporter still has to file a story, and that’s when a story starts to get fabricated.” Cue the cavalcade of unnamed sources, “and the rumor mill really starts cranking. There’s a lot of pressure on journalists to come up with a story. The way it works these days, there’s a headline before the story.”
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So, rather than be a dead celebrity walking, “it’s best that you’re the first one to talk,” Thompson advises. “That way you’re taking the initiative.” There’s a lesson there for more of us than just the movie star who got caught with the nanny.
Redthink advocates a few approaches for the official media statement, many of which can be observed in heavy rotation in the tabloids and TV shows. “One approach,” Thompson says, “is to say, ‘Look, we all make mistakes! Who among us is perfect? Who among us hasn’t made a mistake?’” Another is to step up boldly and proclaim, “Yes, I’ve made a mistake, and here’s what I’m going to do about it!”
But a simple “no comment” is a major no-no. “That still leaves a huge perception in the mind of the reader. That says, ‘Well, they haven’t said they didn’t, so it must be true,’” says Thompson. “At that stage, that’s when you should really step in and really take hold of the situation.”
“The second mistake,” Stern adds, “is not to admit wrongdoing.” Plenty of aloof stars have tried living in denial, only to inevitably be brought down by overwhelming evidence. But when the celebrity is eloquent enough to talk about the issue frankly and gain sympathy, that’s where there is money to be made.
It is “quite normal and quite acceptable,” say Thompson and Stern, for a scandalized celebrity to come forward and receive payment to give that all-important first interview, the value of which depends on the celebrity and the degree of scandal. “It would be a bidding war,” says Stern. “But at the end of the day we won’t necessarily go with the highest bidder ... if we believe our client is going to get a better ride [elsewhere].”
Stern continues, “What we would do is discuss with both the publication and the celebrity any interview parameters, where it can go and where it cannot go, and we would be completely frank with both sides. It’s all a bit of plea-bargaining.”
Photo-wise, one also wants to control which images of a celebrity are sent out to the media. “[Writers] will want to use pictures that correspond to the story,” says Stern. Drunk-and-disorderly scandals will breed drunk-and-disorderly photos. To counteract the effect of those unflattering pics, Stern will disseminate the photo rights to more “wholesome” pictures, showing the celebrity in a family or professional context.
The triumphant return
When finally it’s time to close the book on a scandal, it ends just as it began, with the rumor mill. “Keeping it going can be seen as cheap self-promotion,” says Stern, adding, “Keep your head down, knuckle down and do what you are supposed to do.” And more importantly, “Be seen doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”
“It’s important not to be seen to be hiding,” Thompson adds. “If you’re hiding, obviously, people perceive you have something to hide.”
If the gods are with you, the media circus cooperates, and the smoke finally begins to clear. Then, says Stern, it’s time for the big reveal as the celebrity humbly (one would hope) begins the climb back to fame and favor. “America in particular loves a comeback.” True. Almost as much as we love a good bloodbath.