Entertainment

How Ellen Will Try to Fix Her Scandal, According to Crisis PR Experts

There's a playbook for recovering from the kind of mess DeGeneres is in. Seasoned PR professionals told us how it works.
Drew Schwartz
Brooklyn, US
August 7, 2020, 11:00am
Ellen DeGeneres

For years, media types and Hollywood insiders have whispered about how Ellen DeGeneres isn’t exactly the paragon of kindness she seems to be, and how working on her eponymous show is actually a nightmare, despite its bubbly, innocent facade. Now those rumors have finally come out into the open in the form of serious allegations. Last month, BuzzFeed News published a pair of stories that detail the allegedly toxic environment on set at Ellen, along with allegations of sexual misconduct by three of the show’s producers. Meanwhile, celebrities, guests, and former employees have accused DeGeneres of, essentially, being mean—an allegation that, while far from criminal, runs counter to the brand that’s defined her career. WarnerMedia has since launched an investigation into the workplace at The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and at least one producer is expected to resign.

Aside from a lackluster apology in which DeGeneres refused to take full responsibility for what happened behind the scenes on her show, she’s remained silent. But that likely won’t last long. According to public relations experts who spoke with VICE, she’s almost certainly plotting her comeback, and the odds are high that she’s hired a crisis PR specialist to help her make it.

There’s a playbook for situations like this, and a handful of PR professionals who know every move it contains. HeraldPR President Juda Engelmayer—who’s done crisis work for Paula Deen, Luann de Lesseps, and Harvey Weinstein—and Infinite Global founder Jamie Diaferia, whose firm specializes in crisis PR for corporations and high-profile individuals, told VICE about how DeGeneres might be using it.

Right now, they said, she’s focused on damage control. Celebrities like Katy Perry, Diane Keaton, and Alec Baldwin have all issued statements in support of DeGeneres; there’s a good chance those were orchestrated, Engelmayer and Diaferia said. When clients of theirs are in hot water, asking friends and colleagues for public support is the first move they advise them to make.

“I'm guessing that somebody is using their Rolodex to get in touch with as many people as they can, people they know who have had good experiences with her, people who have been supportive in the past,” Diaferia said. “In this case, you see that it all started on one particular day, so I'm guessing it was a fairly coordinated effort.”

Simultaneously, Engelmayer said, whoever’s handling this mess has probably asked DeGeneres to compile a list of everyone who’s had an unpleasant experience with her, and what they might allege. From there, her advisor will craft responses tailored to each incident, and possibly encourage her to call those she’s slighted in an effort to “keep it contained privately,” Engelmayer said.

“If she's working with a qualified crisis communications firm, she is probably sitting down with an Excel spreadsheet, and she's doing bullet points on this person, that person, and the other person,” Engelmayer said. “If you're not doing that, you're foolish.”

Engelmayer and Diaferia said DeGeneres will likely let celebrity support roll in for a few weeks before she makes her next move: the inevitable apology. If she decides to continue on with her show, they said, she’ll probably stage it there, and could devote an entire episode to it. They envision DeGeneres sitting down with experts on maintaining a healthy workplace, or possibly speaking to former employees on-air.

"You have to start by addressing the elephant in the room,” Diaferia said. “At a minimum, she needs to talk about what happened, why what was going on was not okay, and how it's going to be different.”

As production on her show picks back up, Diaferia and Engelmayer said they’d encourage DeGeneres to meet one-on-one with her employees, apologize to them, and promise that the environment on set would improve, knowing that word of what she did would get leaked to the press.

"You script it as if those words will reach the public,” Diaferia said. “If it's behind-the-scenes work, you can't just do that in a vacuum. You have to let the world know in some way that this is going on, that she's contrite.”

Once a few months have gone by and DeGeneres’s reputation is on the mend, Diaferia said she’ll probably embark on a “rehabilitation tour,” doing a handful of interviews on programs like The Today Show. She can go in with prepared remarks about how much she learned from the crisis; how she failed to live up to her own ethos of always being kind; and how, going forward, she's committed to doing better.

“You can pick [an interviewer] who's a little more friendly, but also credible, that will give you some tough questions, but not too tough,” Diaferia said. “Then you carefully script out the messaging—not so that it appears to be disingenuous, but so that you at least have a sense of what you're going to say, and it's very carefully controlled.”

With that—along with upwards of $100,000 she’ll have spent on a crisis PR specialist, Diaferia said—DeGeneres's comeback will be complete. Barring any damning revelations from WarnerMedia’s investigation, she’ll return to her show, keep raking in a reported $50 million a year salary doing it, and get back into the good graces of her fans.

“Give it a few months,” Engelmayer said. “Americans, and particularly celebrity-watchers, have a short attention span for scandal if they like you. As long as you're doing better, and keeping me happy, and keeping me entertained, I'll forgive you.”

Maybe this will be a formative chapter for DeGeneres, an introspective period of personal growth. But more likely, her recovery will be calculated: a series of moves countless celebrities have made before her, and countless more will make in the future. The question isn’t whether she’ll overcome this crisis—that we already know. The question instead is: When she does, is anybody going to call bullshit?

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