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  • Anthony O'Brien Bedford

Op-Ed: The Oscars 2022 & Reputation Management

In recent days we got an insight into reputation management in the world of celebrity. We witnessed one of Hollywood’s most famous actors step away from the reputation he has carefully cultivated over decades. In front of millions of people, the fresh prince delivered the slap that started a million conversations.

If you haven’t seen the footage of Will Smith smacking Chris Rock at the Oscars then you may be living under a rock. After Rock, a presenter at this year’s Oscars, made a jibe about Smith’s wife, the latter proceeded to casually stroll on to the stage and slap Rock.

All in attendance were shocked. Initially many viewers were confused. Was this an elaborate stunt? As conversations developed it became apparent that this was in fact a real altercation.

From a reputation management perspective the shock experienced by viewers was in fact a by-product of Smith’s existing reputation. Since beginning his career in Hollywood, Will Smith has had a clean cut image. He is approachable, friendly and perceived to be a good guy. How could someone known to be one of the nicest guys in showbiz exhibit behaviour so out of character?

While there is no excuse for violence, in this instance there is at least an explanation for the incident. Jada Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia, she has been very open about her struggle and journey to self-acceptance. According to his biography, Will Smith grew up in a violent household and laments how he wished he had been able to do more to prevent the violence he witnessed.

Fast forward to the Oscars 2022, Chris Rock makes a joke about Jada’s hair on stage in front of millions of people. While being at an award show, celebrities know there is a possibility that they will be subject to insults. It is the tried and tested formula in Hollywood. Most would take a joke on the chin, but not this time. Instead Rock took a slap to the chin for his insensitivity. What he said was not right. It’s never ok to comment on another’s appearance, even in an arena such as this.

Knowing what we know about Jada’s condition and Will’s history, it is easier to see how the events played out the way that they did. However, this was not an appropriate reaction from Smith. The incident has divided opinions. Some celebrities supported Smith for defending his wife. Others expressed their disapproval. Smith went on to win the award for Best Actor, arguably the biggest moment of his career. His accolade has undoubtedly been overshadowed by this incident.

Smith has since apologised to Rock but this moment will haunt him for some time. It is believed the Academy is reviewing the incident and there is talk he may lose his award. This is unlikely but even the notion adds fuel to the online conversation. It’s worth noting though that the Oscars received far more attention than it ordinarily would have, as they say no press is bad press.

Smith has damage control to do. The first being his apology, which was well received, but in order to rehabilitate his reputation a serious PR strategy will be needed. It makes you wonder about reputation management in general, how a reputation can be cultivated for years and then in just one moment become compromised.

PR pros from across the globe have weighed in on the incident. People seem to be leaning towards forgiveness with Smith and he can thank his years of reputation building for that goodwill. However there are others who are less forgiving with zero tolerance for violence. In a world where reputation counts for everything and everyone has a platform to share their opinion, is it possible to turn the tide? The tentative answer is yes. Smith has an excellent foundation to rebuild his reputation because he spent so many years with a positive public image. It’s the same for brands who find themselves in hot water. If a brand has an existing positive reputation and loyal customers who are willing to forgive mistakes then a brand can overcome negative incidents with a PR strategy which reinforces that initially developed reputation.

What should Smith have actually done? In reality anyone can be overcome by emotion in the moment, it’s not an excuse, but it certainly should give us all pause to contemplate how we can react in any given situation. Brands should take note. Had Smith not reacted in the way he did, he would have had an opportunity to take to the stage when receiving his award and call out the insensitivity of the remark. He could have used his moment of victory to defend his wife with words, not violence, and call out the inappropriateness of remarking on another’s appearance. He could have called out society’s view of women’s and specifically black women’s hair and started a conversation. He could have made us all think. Unfortunately his emotions won out. Again the correlation between being reactive vs a well-considered strategy is obvious.

This approach would have bolstered Smith's standing, however it is not too late for him to salvage his public image. He can use this moment of regret and humility to rebuild his reputation, focusing on conversations around violence, the commentary on women and their appearance in media and more. If Smith plans correctly this may be an opportunity for him to restore his reputation in a new way.

While much work is needed for Smith, the correlation to brand reputation crises is clear. Rebuilding a positive reputation is possible when you have already invested time into your profile and are willing to do so again to regain the trust of those who are loyal to you as a brand… or a celebrity.

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