When it comes to reputation, celebrities can usually do one of two things: they can enlist the services of a professional PR person like me, or they can call in the lawyers. Sometimes they do both.
This week, I was dragged into the Daily Mail sidebar of shame and saw that Cheryl Tweedy-Cole-Versini has chosen the heavy-handed option in an attempt to “gag” the Guardian, after journalist Peter Robinson apparently asked her about her criminal conviction for assault. “Frosty” was the word he used to describe the response he received.
Whatever your opinion on whether he was right to bring it up – the incident did happen in 2003, after all – her reaction to the resulting article came as a surprise to me. A strongly worded letter was reportedly issued to the Guardian, banning all mention of the conviction, using the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act as justification.
First of all, it’s been a matter of public record for 16 years, so why try to bury it now? Seems a bit of a horse/stable door approach to me. Calling in the lawyers after all this time only serves to draw attention to it. She also chose to write about it in her 2012 autobiography. It’s almost as if she wants people to talk about it.
Another interesting fact about this story is that the lawyers are using legislation other than privacy laws to try and make it go away. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act means ex-offenders don’t have to mention spent convictions to potential employers, and is not there to protect celebrities from their pasts.
The story reminded me of the time Robert Downey Jnr was asked about his past by Krishnan Guru-Murthy during a televised interview. The result was that RDJ stormed out, and it attracted masses of publicity for all the wrong reasons. There are ways and means to recover a poor reputation – of course there are, or else I would be out of a job – but this isn’t one of them.
So how should celebrities handle these questions? Some might advise ignoring them. But as we all know, that’s the worst thing you can do in this situation – even historical actions have very real consequences, and thanks to the internet they’re never really gone. Saying ‘no comment’ just invites speculation. All you can do is, metaphorically speaking, wave your arms and point at the other thing in the room that you want them to look at, instead of the elephant in the corner.
When advising my clients, dealing with a crisis requires swift but decisive action. Had she simply reminded the journalist that it was a long time ago and she would like to move on, it would be a non-story. Instead, she has turned it into a negative – and made it extremely shareable – by essentially using a mallet to crack a walnut. I have a number of friends who are journalists, and I have a feeling that all Cheryl has done is give Fleet Street renewed vigour to give her as difficult a time as possible. I wish her luck.