OP-ED: Celeb Handlers, Gate Guardians Do Disservice to Their Clients, Need Crisis Communications Help

by Rene A. Henry

SEATTLE, WA (Special to HNN)  – Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers." With a proliferation of crises involving entertainers and sports stars I believe you can add agents and PR flacks to Shakespeare’s wish list.



The people who are paid to protect their clients and give them the best possible advice, all too often are just not qualified to do so. I spent a significant part of my professional career in both entertainment and sports and know that very few Hollywood lawyers, agents and publicists are experienced in crisis management and communications. That’s why when crises happen and exacerbate with one public relations faux pas after another, things just get out completely of control – all at the expense of the client.



When celebrities get in trouble it is a magnet for the media. Even the least little incident will be considered headline news by many media outlets. Most politicians fall into the same crisis arena as celebrities.



High profile corporate executives, however, are generally better prepared by having on staff highly capable public relations professionals with diverse experience in addition to having outside PR counsel on retainer. But it only works if the executive listens to them and not the lawyers.



When any client gets in trouble, lawyers almost always say “no comment” or ignore returning media calls. Agents don’t have a clue what to do until they see a monthly income statement and quickly realize how many endorsements and sponsorships their client has lost. The client has double trouble when the agent also is a lawyer. Some unethical agents have made a mess of college sports by violating NCAA rules and causing sanctions to be imposed on schools. Perhaps Vince Lombardi had the right idea when he refused to negotiate with agents and dealt directly with the players.


There once were many outstanding public relations professionals in the business who knew exactly what to do. Regrettably, these have been replaced by newbies and wannabees who have no training or experience in dealing with crises or even understanding the basic principles of public relations.



The best today are those who learned from and practice what was practiced by icons in entertainment and sports public relations – Henry Rogers, Howard Strickling, Rupert Allen, Murray Weisman, Shelly Saltman, Jim Flood, Don Smith, John Strauss, Mike Moran, Budd Thalman, Hank Rieger, C. Robert Paul, Jr., Arthur Solomon, and Cliff Dektar.



In crisis management and communications the first principle is to prevent a crisis from happening, and if it does, to get immediate closure. This means anticipating what to do when a crisis happens and having a plan in place. Unfortunately too many of the lawyers, agents and publicity flacks in the entertainment and sports businesses today would have a better chance of understanding Einstein’s theory of relativity before creating a plan that could be implemented on behalf of their clients.



To get closure and build trust from the media and public, this means returning all calls, answering all emails and letters, always telling the truth, never misleading, getting the whole story told as quickly as possible, being open and transparent, and being proactive to stop and correct any misinformation. With today’s technology and social media information can be around the world in a matter of seconds. The fundamentals of crisis communications are just plain common sense.



This also means the celebrity’s PR representative needs to communicate with the network or studio executives or sports team owners of the client involved as well as any sponsors and to coordinate statements with the respective counterparts in public relations. Crisis situations get out of control when the lawyer, agent or publicist responds like a gate guardian and slams shut the doors.



I have worked with lawyers, agents and publicists, some of them friends and colleagues, who were afflicted with a gate guard mentality. While good at doing what they do for their clients, they violated the basic principle of always returning every inquiry. Few ever let their clients know of any requests or even have the courtesy to respond. This character and discipline flaw becomes readily apparent in a crisis.



I once had a partner who had this syndrome. Another partner and I were having lunch at a tony Beverly Hills restaurant when one of Los Angeles’ movers and shakers told us that she made a request involving our client Carol Burnett and had been turned down. She said Burnett had always been a major supporter of the charity so she asked our partner who handled her if she would emcee an upcoming annual event. He answered “no.”



When we returned to our offices, without asking our partner who represented Burnett, we phoned her at home and asked if she would like to emcee the event. She enthusiastically responded “Of course, I would love to. It is one of my favorite charities.” Two hours later our partner, who never took the time to discuss the request with her, was livid. We reminded him that he not only had done a disservice to our client by not asking her, but had offended someone who was important to our firm. Non-responders just do not understand this.



One Hollywood publicist boasts that a magazine considers her one of the 50 most powerful women in New York City. This probably is because she is the gate guardian who screens all requests and invites for her actor clients. I doubt if she has ever done anything to benefit the Big Apple and without her client list she would be just another flack. She probably never took a course in ethics and leverages her clients for her own selfish interests.


This is the 50th anniversary of JFK’s famous inaugural speech about not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. Many entertainers and athletes I know would love to give back to any number of causes if ever asked. It is a shame that too many who are supposed to represent the best interests of celebrities do not give their clients the opportunity to do so.

Rene A. Henry is an author and writer who lives in Seattle. He spent five decades of his professional career in international sports at all levels and also is a member of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. His latest book, “Communicating In A Crisis,” is filled with examples of crises in both entertainment and sports. For David M. Kinchen's review of "Communicating In A Crisis," click: http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/080930-kinchen-columnsbookreview.html.


Comments powered by Disqus