On Sunday, January 5th, comedian Ricky Gervais got the New Year off to a hot start in Hollywood by using his platform as host of the Golden Globe Awards to roast the Hollywood celebrities sitting in front of him.
That he would make some people uncomfortable was to be expected. In all of the pre-event media coverage, the award show’s publicists actually hyped the event by showcasing Ricky Gervais’s unpredictable and irreverent nature. It seems safe to assume no one imagined just how irreverent he’d be.
The most shared video clip of the night on social media was when the host played the role of brutally honest PR counselor and told his celebrity-packed audience:
“If you win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech,” he advised the stars during his opening monologue.
“You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything, you know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg.”
Needless to say, more than a few award winners would later reject Gervais’s unsolicited advice and did use the stage for political speech. But the headlines the next day mostly centered on backlash Gervais received in Hollywood for his cold candor.
Vanity Fair reporter Mark Harris’s tweets the next day were representative of the backlash:
“Here’s my Ricky Gervais problem,” he said. “The idea that celebrities are not only pampered babies but hypocrites who cause the problems they make speeches deploring and should therefore shut up and act/sing/be grateful is a right-wing talking point, and an especially stupid one.”
“It’s not an act of speaking truth to power or of bravery to attack celebs on that front—it’s a tired way of scolding people into silence because you don’t like what they’re saying, and saying that he’s ‘calling out’ the hyper privileged is just the same thing in a new guise.”
Gervais took to Twitter to give his side of the story, and in his own unintentional way, offer some PR insights:
“Simply pointing out whether someone is left or right wing isn’t winning the argument. If a joke is good enough, it can be enjoyed by anyone. It’s not all about you. Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right.”
Whether you agree with Gervais’s humor, laughed at it or tuned it out, Gervais made a few points that from a PR perspective are worth considering, whether you or your organization is ever the target of humor or some other perceived slight in the public arena. In the world of corporate communications, we like to call this crisis communications or issues management.
While I’m more diplomatic than Gervais might be, when I meet with crisis management clients who’ve been the target of public ridicule in some way, it is important to remind them that as painful as the criticism may be, even on a personal level, the motivation for the attacks may not be personal at all. That’s not a defense of the critic, but it’s an important starting point to start to obtain the clarity needed to make sound decisions on exactly how to respond in a crisis. Chances are, your first instinct at times like this is driven more by emotion than rational thought, and that’s not a good basis.
The most important thing is to gain a real understanding of what emotional and attitudinal place the attacks may be coming from, and more importantly, why some of them may be ringing true for the public.
Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right
As Gervais deadpanned, “Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right.”
The value in that comment is that before you can correct public opinion, you have to know as much about where that opinion is rooted and how it has taken shape in this way. Only then in crisis communications can you start to address the factors that will turn things around.
Given the reaction of Hollywood to Gervais’s comments, it would appear that many of the celebrities would do well to step back and work to understand why Gervais’s unlikely PR advice resonated with so many in the public.
∼ ∼ ∼
Going forward, I will cover more topics like this. Also, I prepared a guide on the Four Steps You Can Take to Change Minds When the Coverage is Not Fair or Balanced. Please feel free to get in touch with me to get your copy.