In show business, the old adage that all publicity is good publicity is believed by some and followed by many. But is it really true?
Over the weekend, legendary actor Robert De Niro found himself faced with this decision.
But rather than face the music, he chose to avoid the conspiracy and tread lightly.
The controversy started with De Niro’s announcement that he had given the green light for “Vaxxed" at the Tribeca film festival, which he helped co-found.
The film is an anti-vaccine motion picture directed by Andrew Wakefield; most well known for his discredited research linking autism, measles, mumps, and rubella to vaccines.
The scandal that followed led to the loss of his medical license and injured his reputation.
Wakefield then spun the situation to his benefit by playing the underdog speaking the truth in a wake of lies from the government. In spite of several proofs, his study was flawed, his movement gained enough traction to persuade many parents from getting their children vaccinated.
Owing partially to this movement, diseases like measles have made a comeback in the United States.
De Niro originally defended
his decision by stating, “Grace [De Niro’s wife] and I have a child with autism . . . and we believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined."
But when things went south and scientists’ clamor won, he back-stepped and issued a statement showing a change of heart.
It said: “My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family. But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.”
De Niro made the right decision in choosing to pull his support from the film. However, had he gone about things differently from the beginning, he could have withstood the talk and rode the waves of controversy. This, in turn, would have boosted awareness of the Tribeca Festival, and brought greater exposure.
Sometimes in the industry it is not what a person does but why he does it, which creates a problem.
This is the heart and soul of public relations, and why experts can often turn even the worst scenarios into a ray of hope for a company. They do this not by changing the situation, but by changing how people perceive it.
For instance, budget cuts due to overspending become “restructuring,” and promotions overshadow who got fired.
De Niro’s public issue was he took a stance on an issue without fully thinking it through.
He may have not calculated the depth of opposition to Wakefield. By saying he chose to air the film to provoke conversation about “the causes of autism” implies he believes Wakefield’s discredited research.
PR-wise, he may have been better off discussing the importance of giving art a platform even when it challenges our beliefs or provokes controversy. He could have even called on free speech rights, and remained neutral while stating the festival supported Wakefield not because it believed in his research, but because it believed in Wakefield’s right to share it.
By making the decision less personal, the controversy would have still stirred up protests, but they would not have been so directly focused on him. Sometimes the best way to get away with a “bad” decision is to acknowledge why it is bad while showing people the silver lining in the dark cloud.
De Niro failed to do that and as a result could only spare his reputation by doing a full 180-degree turn.
Ronn Torossian is one of America’s foremost Public Relations executives as founder/CEO of 5WPR, a leading independent PR Agency. The firm was honored as PR Firm of the Year by The American Business Awards, and has been named to the Inc. 500 List. Torossian is author of the best-selling "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations." For more of Ronn Torossian's reports, Go Here Now.
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