As a Public Relations Expert, I Recommend Jussie Smollett Take These Steps, NOW!Date - Feb. 21, 2019
by Jennifer R. Farmer
It is difficult for me to comprehend what would motivate a man, who appeared to have it all or at least more than most, to make up a story about being verbally assaulted, beaten and harassed based on race and sexual orientation. I do not know whether the accusations against Smollett are true, but from the outside looking in, the charges seem credible and damning. If I were a part of Jussie’s PR team, I would advise him to take five steps:
- Apologize. Lying about being attacked based on one’s race and sexual orientation is indefensible. If the allegations are true, Smollett should offer an unequivocal apology. From a PR standpoint, his apology should be specific, and it should be clear. He should apologize for wasting precious legal resources. He should apologize for putting his family and castmates in a position of having to defend him only to find out the whole situation was a hoax. He should apologize to the two men he accused of attacking him. Most importantly, he should apologize to black, queer women; the LGBTQ community writ large; and people who have been victims of hate crimes. He should also apologize to himself for undoubtedly letting himself down. While Smollett’s legal team will likely want to monitor what he says, this is a situation where legal guidance and PR guidance would be at odds. While lawyers are concerned with mitigating the criminal damages, as a PR expert, my focus would be on preserving his public-facing persona.
- Explain. After apologizing, Smollett should explain why he did what he is alleged to have done: making up a wild claim about being attacked based on race and sexual orientation. People are inherently curious, and curiosity has an insatiable appetite. In the absence of “knowing,” people will make up their own conclusions and create a version of reality that suits their needs. Those conclusions, and that reality, will most certainly be unhelpful. More importantly – and placing curiosity to the side – Smollett owes his family, friends and hate crime victims an explanation. He should not offer this explanation with the hope that it will be well-received. People will rightly question anything Smollett says for the foreseeable future. However, an explanation allows him to begin the process of accountability, and that is essential for the eventual resuscitation of his career.
- Make Amends. Smollett should enter a restorative justice program and work to seek amends for his alleged mistake. One caveat: I am not a fan of people who have been accused of wrongdoing writing a big check to the group they have aggrieved and then considering their public repentance work complete. Making amends is not always about money. Smollett needs to engage impacted communities and ask them what they need and then work to accommodate those needs.
- Take a Pause. After walking through the first three steps, Smollett should take a temporary pause to regroup. He can use the time to focus on healing and to work to become a higher version of himself.
- Launch the Next Thing. Finally, when celebrities make mistakes, it is natural to want to disappear from the public eye. After walking through the steps above, being accountable to the legal community and to his family, friends, and fans, Smollett should move forward with his life and career by launching the next thing. The timing for this is key. If he tries to proceed too quickly, he will alienate fans and supporters. If he waits too long, it may be impossible to recover. He should work on his next big thing and then strategically decide the best timing to launch it.
As someone with more than 17 years in the PR arena and someone who has walked with political leaders and others through crisis situations, this is my best guidance for Smollett. It’s offered with best wishes for his long-term well-being.