Monday 23 September 2019

'Pitbull of PR' on how to survive a scandal without lasting damage

Eric Dezenhall says celebrities must apologise, repent and reduce the risk of scandal by going for the 'right' kind of woman, writes Niamh Horan

Eric Dezanhall
Eric Dezanhall
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

You can put on your shoes in the morning as a king and see your reputation torn to shreds on the news before you pour yourself a cup of coffee. No one knows this better than Eric Dezenhall.

'The Pitbull of PR', he is the man the rich and famous call when a scandal breaks. Michael Jackson and the former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling all turned to him when hit by crisis. He has also worked with Tiger Woods' corporate sponsors.

Dezenhall knows how dangerous technology can be. A piece of masking tape covers the camera on his laptop and it never fails to surprise him how powerful names get caught out by their iPhones: "People say the camera adds 10 pounds, well I say it also lowers 30 IQ points."

Speaking from his office in Washington DC, he describes how Harvey Weinstein has changed the landscape of the sex scandal.

"Behaviour around since the beginning of time became unacceptable virtually overnight and all of this has happened in a 'fiasco vortex'," he says.

This is a term he coined to describe how - thanks to the combination of velocity, volume, and venom online - "a crisis is over before it even begins".

Monica Lewinsky and former US president Bill Clinton. Picture: Getty
Monica Lewinsky and former US president Bill Clinton. Picture: Getty

With little time to discuss the difference between "out and out criminal behaviour - rape - and behaviour that is undesirable but not necessarily criminal", he says "both bad people and not so bad people get hurt" and most reputations are unsavable.

As a result Dezenhall has to be brutally honest about his capabilities. He turns away 95pc of potential clients: "A lot of consultants sell the idea that they are a magician and can make your problem go away but there are times when even the term 'crisis management' can be arrogant - it is like saying you are in the business of 'meteor management' - there is a meteor coming, so just watch what I do while it hits the Earth. Eh well, the answer is nothing!"

When Tiger Woods crashed into a fire hydrant after multiple affairs, Dezenhall publicly advised him to go away for a long time, use his yacht and quietly enjoy some sport.

"People were asking why he wasn't doing any interviews but that's not what he is good at and the real game was to keep as many endorsements as possible."

He says the best type of clients are large corporations with good leadership and the time and money to pull through. And the worst? "The celebrity, accused of very bad behaviour that is true."

When someone comes to him in this circumstance he takes on the role of an 'emergency room triage doctor'.

"Your first objective is that your client doesn't go to jail. Your next is to ensure they can keep some of their money and not lose it all in civil law suits. And finally - the career renaissance - but that is not even open for discussion until the other two are dealt with."

His motto is: "You can't rebuild a house in a hurricane, you have to wait for it to pass." But in the meantime, he says, you can get down and grovel.

GO QUIET: Tiger Woods was advised by Dezenhall to lay low after news of his affairs came out
GO QUIET: Tiger Woods was advised by Dezenhall to lay low after news of his affairs came out

On the perfect apology, he adds: "There isn't one. In the age of social media, all - and I mean all - apologies are declared botched and too little, too late. People will always say it was insincere."

So is it pointless? "No! You have to do it. Not because you are going to be praised or forgiven but because just imagine what will happen if you don't! So I tell my clients: don't do it because you believe you are going to be forgiven now, do it because it is the price of entry to future redemption."

He says, ultimately, the public wants to see some pain. "Remember the whole idea of an apology goes back to the Judeo-Christian ethic - people want to see that you suffer, not that you have simply said the right thing."

He describes the rehab route as "dated" but advocates getting out of the limelight to reflect.

"Then after a while it is possible to come back and discuss what the suffering looked like - describe what you have done and what have you learned."

The key, he says, is to show behaviour that is "human and intuitive". "If you have done something bad then what is so wrong about saying 'this has been the worst experience of my life, I can't believe this happened, I never looked at the world this way and I look at everything different now'. People want to see a sincere demonstration that there has been suffering and they want to hear the lessons that were learned."

Friends in high places also help. Rather than saying "I am not like Harvey Weinstein, I was just inappropriate", he says "your option is to find a third party to say that."

He lists the other factors that decide your fate - culture and the climate of the time is crucial. "Sometimes the circumstances are ripe for a person to get away with it," he says. "For example, John F. Kennedy could not have done today what he did while he was alive."

Your profession can also play a role. "A comedian is given more of a pass than a politician," he says, while on Louis CK - the comedian recently admitted to allegations of sexual misconduct - he predicts: "I don't think his career will come back to where it was but I think it is possible for him to start doing stand up again three years from now. Do I think he is going to be getting movie deals any time soon? No. Nobody is that talented that the world is demanding that particular talent."

He pinpoints the single biggest decider in a person's fate to 'likeability'.

When the Monica Lewinsky scandal first broke Dezenhall was the only crisis management executive who publicly predicted the former president would get away with it. When asked 'why' by a TV host, he replied: "He is going to get away with it for the same reason beautiful women don't get speeding tickets - because that is how the world works."

As with Clinton's downfall, he says he is all too aware that sex is an Achilles' heel for some of the world's most powerful men.

"If all of a sudden you are in your 40s and the kind of woman who would not have thrown a glass of water on you if you had been on fire 20 years ago is now giving you attention, one thing you are not doing is thinking!"

Men are becoming more careful. "I know CEOs who will not fly on their private aircraft with a woman alone because they don't want to put themselves in a situation where something can happen that they are going to regret".

But he has been around long enough to admit many more are weaker than that.

So he would say that the kind of women they go for can make all the difference. "There have been plenty of politicians and powerful people who have had affairs but the ones who get in less trouble are the ones who get involved with women who are substantial in their own right.

"I am not encouraging people to have affairs - I have been married for 30 years - but there is a difference between Tiger Woods having an affair with a cocktail waitress and getting involved with a person of substance, ie someone who is sufficiently successful in their own right. If things don't work out they don't get anything from diving in front of a camera and talking about how they were wronged."

Still, some men are so handsome, he says, it almost works in their favour. David Beckham is a case in point. "It was kind of built into his stock price. I think people expect a guy who looks like that to behave that way."

In terms of the best people in the world at maintaining a good image there is one group he tips his hat to. "The worst thing Bono has ever been accused of is that his political lecturing gets a little bit grating. He has been scandal-free for four decades. That is about as impressive as you can get. That doesn't mean he is good at PR - it means he is really good at what he does and is by every account that I heard a pretty decent person."

As for Frances Fitzgerald, she might want to take heed of the factors that decide whether a politician can dig their heels in the face of calls for their resignation.

Dezenhall says: "Are the allegations true? What is your level of political support? What type of other scandals are you competing against?"

So a politician can plant another story to take heat off? "Oh sure - this is what Donald Trump has done for years."

As for the biggest lesson in his 35 years in the business, he says: "I worked on Michael Jackson's defence and I was one of the people who told him it would be a very good idea to come out and say, 'I had a bad childhood, my relationship with children is all very innocent but I understand how it looks, I am in my 40s, it gets me into trouble so I am not going to do it any more'.

"And what did he do? He went on with Martin Bashir and said there is nothing more loving than to share your bed with a child. You can have all the advice in the world but if you don't want to take it there is nothing I can do."

Eric Dezenhall's book, Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal, is out now.

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