During the Academy Awards on March 27, millions of viewers witnessed a rare event: a celebrity publicity nightmare, and the attempted cleanup, in real time.
Over the past decade-plus, being a Hollywood publicist has become a lot more complicated. While it was once primarily about shaping and promoting your client and their image, the job now requires instant crisis management; thanks to social media, disaster can strike at any time as images and video travel everywhere in mere minutes. That’s exactly what happened when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars, except on an even grander scale, in front of a global audience.
Smith’s longtime publicist, Meredith O’Sullivan Wasson, inadvertently found herself in the spotlight. Audience members posted clips to Twitter that showed her consulting with Smith in the audience between commercial breaks, while industry publications focused on her role in mitigating the damage.
Multiple celebrity publicists (all of whom agreed to speak to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity — their jobs require the ultimate discretion) nearly all had the same reaction as they watched the incident play out: “Thank God that’s not my client.” As conversations about “the slap” — and its fallout — continue, some are still wondering: “What would I have done?”
“I think myself, like most people who do this, you felt this sort of sick feeling,” said one Hollywood publicist. “It’s so much pressure to figure out the right move, and what’s the right thing to do ... and hoping your instincts are right. And I don’t think anyone’s ever been in a situation like that.”
Repercussions for Smith
On April 8, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that Smith would be banned from attending all academy events, most notably including the Academy Awards, for the next 10 years as penalty for slapping Rock.
Academy President David Rubin and CEO Dawn Hudson wrote in an open letter addressed to “our academy family” that the celebratory intentions of the March 27 ceremony “were overshadowed by the unacceptable and harmful behaviour we saw Mr Smith exhibit on stage.”
Smith said in a statement, “I accept and respect the Academy’s decision.”
The publicist acknowledged it’s important to keep things in perspective: “Nobody died. It’s just an award show.” Still, it’s about as high-pressure and stressful mess as you can get in this line of work, and no one was envious of Wasson (who declined to comment for this story), nor of Smith’s team in general.
“PR people should not become part of the story — it’s a tenet every PR person knows. But sometimes it’s inevitable,” said Susan Tellem, a partner at Tellem Grody PR who leads the agency’s crisis team. “And I think that we can’t judge any decisions made in that particular case, because it all happened so quickly.”
Maintaining an image
During the Oscars, it initially seemed like some of the fastest image repair of all time, as Smith went from slapping Rock on live television to receiving a standing ovation 45 minutes later as he delivered a tearful acceptance speech for best actor for his role in “King Richard.” The sequence of events was an image-scrambler: Smith built his career on likability — for many, it was hard to reconcile the rapper who refused to swear in his songs with the one suddenly yelling “Keep my wife’s name out your [expletive] mouth.”
But that’s exactly what Hollywood PR is about: building and maintaining the preferred image. Once the dust settled, and people started to process what they saw, the questioning began: How was that allowed to happen? Why was Smith was allowed to stay for his speech?
According to reports and people behind the scenes, Wasson conferred with academy leaders, though it has been a back-and-forth in the press ever since. The academy released a statement saying Smith was asked to leave but he refused; Smith’s team shot back via TMZ that that was not the case, that executive producer Will Packer told him he could remain at the show. (Packer said in a “Good Morning America” interview that Rock didn’t want Smith removed, though a person close to Rock told The Post that the comedian was never asked whether Smith should stay.)
Matthew Belloni, former editor of the Hollywood Reporter and founder-partner of new-media company Puck, cited four anonymous sources who said Wasson was told by academy executives that they wanted to ask Smith to leave. Smith apparently interpreted that as a suggestion, not a demand; Belloni wrote that Wasson shouldn’t have necessarily been caught in the middle, and an academy leader should have talked to Smith.
“I know it’s common for executives to use publicists and other reps as conduits for tough-to-swallow information, and Wasson is said to have volunteered to deliver the message to her client,” he wrote, though pointing out, “She can be expected to serve only the wishes of her client, not the Academy.”
Wasson, co-founder and co-chief executive officer of the Lede Company, has represented Smith for more than 10 years along with some of the biggest names in Hollywood - Reese Witherspoon, Halle Berry and Will Ferrell among them. Fellow celebrity publicists speak highly of her and empathize with another difficult part of the job: giving your extremely famous clients advice they may not listen to.
While no one but Wasson and Smith know what was said between them in those frenetic minutes during commercial breaks or after his speech, fellow publicists are willing to venture that she told him not to go to the highly publicized Vanity Fair after-party, which Smith triumphantly did anyhow. Or as one publicist put it: “She knew the optics of that. My guess is she gave him guidance to ‘Go home, party with your family, order in from Spago.’” (Belloni also reported Wasson advised Smith to skip the party.)
Smith was seen dancing the night away in photos and videos online. As one publicist said, it felt like Smith was communicating, “’I’m throwing this in your face ‘cause I’m the king of Hollywood.’ To me, that footage was almost as hurtful as the slap, because it showed in that moment... he wasn’t connected to what just happened.”
Communications executives agreed that’s one of the more difficult parts of the job, when your famous clients have (to put it mildly) a slightly different way of viewing the world because they’re famous, and choose to take their own path. Although it’s your job to try to explain to them how things will look, they sometimes just ignore it. That can be painful, especially when publicists know it will turn out badly.
“As a personal publicist, these are personal relationships, especially if you’re working with someone for a very long time,” one said. “And often you come to care about these people. They are human beings that are flawed and revered, and we live in that space constantly with them.”
As for what comes next? One called it an almost impossible task to begin to change the narrative, because nothing will change the fact that video and images of the slap exist - and are now part of showbiz lore.
While some suggest Smith should stay out of the spotlight, Evan Nierman, chief executive of global crisis PR firm Red Banyan, said the opposite approach could be best, given how the visceral imagery of the slap still lingers. So far, Smith has lain low, though he released an apology statement on Instagram last week and announced he was resigning from the academy while they consider consequences.
“His Instagram apology was a well-crafted statement that checked the right boxes, but it was words on a page that were undoubtedly written by a crisis PR or communications consultant,” Nierman said. And as far as his circle trying to shape the conversation via quotes to news outlets, he said, “People don’t want to hear from sources close to Will Smith - they want to hear from and see Will Smith.”
Publicists who represent celebrities like Smith said they can only imagine the chaos behind the scenes of the last week.
“It’s a hard job,” one publicist said. “And one that deserves a lot more respect.”