Public figure fiascos and their redemption playbooks
11.08.23 | By Kimberley Killender | opinion
Unveiling public figure fiascos and their redemption playbooks.
Oh, how we love to watch the mighty fall.
The unforgiving eyes of the public never blink. The spotlight never dims. The news cycle never stops. For celebrities and alike influencers, the world watches and waits for your inevitable misstep. These mistakes have destroyed brands, both personal and professional by association. And whilst some manage to claw their way back and regain the public’s favour, others decimate any chance of redemption with how they handle these sticky situations.
Here are the latest examples we can’t stop thinking about.
Lizzo rose to fame on the back of feminist empowerment and self love, with anthems about rocking your curves, dumping that man, and cashing those cheques. So when the news broke that Lizzo and her production company Big Grrrl Touring were being sued by three of her former dancers for sexual, religious and racial harassment, false imprisonment, fat shaming, and a hostile work environment, Lizzo fans were appropriately shaken.
The (attempted) redemption.
Molly McPherson (@mollybmcpherson), a PR crisis communications specialist, posted a breakdown of Lizzo’s PR team's tactics. And the expert was unimpressed. There’s a delicate balance to strike between legal liability and reputation for brands and personalities looking to address a situation like this. The language used is often very careful, and should be language that spoon feeds the audience the words they need to absolve or defend the person in question.
Lizzo posted a Notes app apology to her Insta grid, something McPherson acknowledges as an industry tactic, making Instagram the preferred platform for influencer apologies these days. McPherson says it’s because these people are brands in crisis. They don’t want to go to a social platform that’s filled with too many opinions and ways for people to express them, so they choose an app that’s specifically photo-centric.
Lizzo’s post focused on denial. McPherson analysed it through her “indestructible crisis response management” framework: Own It, Explain It, Promise It, identifying that Lizzo did none of those things.
Of course, even though the general public aren’t seeing the situation through this PR framework, their criticism of it still addresses the same criteria. As this is an ongoing legal case, it will be a long, and potentially impossible, path to redemption for Lizzo.
It's true that other celebrities have done worse things and have barely had their careers impacted. People are pointing out that Lizzo is a proudly fat, Black woman, meaning she has always had to work harder to maintain her place in the entertainment industry, and is being punished more harshly than her white, male peers would be.
Whilst this frustration is a fair critique of the industry in general, it’s important to acknowledge that Lizzo’s brand was one of self love and body positivity. Both her music and her celebrity persona are products, marketed with a core of inclusivity and positivity. These values were an advertised differentiator, asking you to choose her product over others. Not only is this celebrity now not the person her fans signed up to support, but she is now someone who actively goes against the values that attracted them to her in the first place.
The actor posted a cryptic Instagram that read “They killed this dude name Jesus … what do you think they’ll do to you???! #fakefriends #fakelove”. Unfortunately for him, that idea has been used to justify violence against the Jewish community for centuries, including during the Holocaust. Backlash was swift.
Foxx did a much better job of sticking to McPherson’s PR framework: Own It, Explain It, Promise It. He swiftly deleted the post, and followed up with an apology.
He owned it: “I want to apologize to the Jewish community and everyone who was offended by my post. I now know my choice of words [has] caused offense and I’m sorry. That was never my intent.” He explained it: “To clarify, I was betrayed by a fake friend and that’s what I meant with ‘they’ not anything more.”
And he concluded not by making a promise, but by reiterating the unspoken promise of “I’m not a Nazi” his fans inherently expect: “I only have love in my heart for everyone. I love and support the Jewish community. My deepest apologies.”
Was it polished? No. Was it authentic? Hell yeah.
Celebrities and fans alike were quick to jump to his defence, posting comments and messages of support, either in his comments, or on their own social media post-apology.
This particular little scandal also touched Jennifer Aniston, who was seen as having ‘liked’ the post prior to its deletion. She released her own statement condemning antisemitism on her Instagram stories. “This really makes me sick. [...] I want to be clear to my friends and anyone hurt by this showing up in their feeds – I do not support antisemitism. And I truly don’t tolerate HATE of any kind. Period.”
Colleen Ballinger (Miranda Sings)
Colleen Ballinger, who first became a YouTube sensation in the 2010s with her alter-ego Miranda Sings, has been accused of grooming, inappropriate conversations and interactions with underage fans, racism, fatphobia, and even animal abuse. Yikes.
The (attempted) redemption.
How did she redeem herself? She… really, really didn’t. Can you hear that crying in the distance? That’s her PR team still reeling from the allegedly monetised YouTube video she posted with an apology song.
Yes, she released an apology video in June, titled “hi,” where she denies the grooming allegations… in a ten minute song performed with a ukulele. In the song, she accuses internet users of encouraging the “toxic gossip train, chugging down the tracks of misinformation” and gifted the TikTok community with the line “The only thing I’ve ever groomed is my two Persian cats”, leading to merciless mocking online for her tone deaf response and deeply rehearsed mannerisms in which she presented it.
Yes, it's just as bad as it sounds.
Outside of these accusations, Colleen’s Miranda Sings character was always problematic. Some YouTubers, when called out for their racist, misogynistic, or now-inappropriate video content from the past, apologise and delete it, acknowledging they had grown and educated themselves, and that times had changed. At the time of writing, these kinds of skits are still available on Colleen’s YouTube channel. How sorry can you be for your actions if you continue to let them be part of your identity?
Dani DMC (Dani Carbonari)
Dani DMC, style influencer and self-proclaimed ‘confidence activist’, was part of a free influencer trip to China to visit the Shein factory. The aim was to debunk rumours around the fast fashion company’s labour practices. You know, like the forced labour and child labour allegations.
The controversy, extensively covered through news articles, blogs, and TikTok stitches, triggered a cascade of criticisms directed at Carbonari. Her downplaying of well-documented labour abuses as "rumours" ignited widespread backlash. Her followers started dropping. Those who heard of her through the Shein incident ridiculed her for attempting to pass as an investigative journalist. She was accused of whitewashing, propaganda, selling out, and supporting slavery. It was all… very messy.
To some extent, the ire aimed at Dani DMC was justified. Relying on a handful of meticulously staged interactions with a massive corporation to ‘showcase’ the experiences of its 10,000 employees and subcontractors is ridiculous. However, the core issue wasn’t a content creator lacking journalistic expertise who failed to prioritise factual accuracy in labour-related matters. Those expectations were hardly realistic to begin with. So obviously, people backed off, right? Wrong.
The (sort of) redemption.
Dani could have backed down. Gone quiet for a little while and let it all blow over. But instead, she dove into a pile of cheap, mass-produced clothes headfirst, and just kept digging.
She posted several follow up videos challenging the people who were saying the factory shown in her video wasn’t the real factory, claiming she had “so much more awareness of what’s going on behind the scenes than any of you ever could because you don’t see what’s going on.” and hitting critics with zingers such as ““I've seen stuff with my own two eyes. If you think it's propaganda, that's cool.”
This attitude, of course, copped more criticism. And eventually the influencer removed those posts and uploaded one admitting she should have done more research. Which is kind of an apology, if you squint.
Dani was not the only influencer given a tour. And all the other influencer videos sounded very, very similar. Consensus is they were given a script. Repetition may work to hammer home a message in sales marketing, but not when you’re trying to create a sense of trust and authenticity.
What can brands learn from these famous f ups?
The higher the pedestal, the longer the fall.
Honesty and humility can go a long way.
Not every mistake is brand-destroying if you can handle it calmly, quickly, and appropriately.
Crisis recovery is not about being cute, quirky or 'on brand'. It’s about acknowledging the situation in a way that respects the gravity of it. It’s why BP doesn't make cute little jingles about oil spills.
Partnerships and collaborations need to align with your audience. And also with basic human rights.