Many years ago, I consulted New York attorney David Ebert about a dispute I had with a former employer. Ebert was quite supportive, told me I had a good case, and that if I went the distance chances were good I could prevail. I loved what I was hearing. Then Ebert threw me a curveball.
“Look, financially it’s in my interests to get you riled up and tell you this a matter of principle and that you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror,” I recall Ebert as saying. “But you are going up against someone who has deep pockets, will drag out the process for years, and your legal fees could eat up most of your settlement. You seem like a smart guy – my best advice is go start your own company so you don’t find yourself in this situation again. Living well is the best revenge.”
I heeded Ebert’s counsel and ran a successful PR, corporate, and crisis communications firm for 25 years. It eventually paid off for Ebert, as years later I referred him a corporate client that generated significantly higher fees than my case would have.
Ebert served as a valuable role model: I followed his example and always told clients and new business prospects what was in their best interests, not mine. Unfortunately, when it comes to PR, people under fire often don’t want to hear the truth. I missed out on a lot of business opportunities telling people their best PR strategy would be to keep their mouths shut and instruct everyone around them to do the same.
I was an outlier in my profession with my belief that “spinning,” often a euphemism for deception, is never an effective strategy. Jason Stein, a PR executive who was hired in September to restore embattled Prince Andrew’s reputation, is the rare PR executive who appreciates that sometimes engaging the media is a very bad idea. According to press reports, Stein warned Prince Andrew not to give an interview to the BBC. Andrew chose to listen his private secretary Amanda Thirsk, who studied law and became a banker. The interview was universally panned as a disaster. Stein admirably resigned because of the debacle not of his doing.
Disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, who went on trial this week on sexual assault charges, is under the delusion he can use the media to restore his tarnished reputation. Weinstein last month gave an interview to the New York Post touting the opportunities he gave women before and behind the camera, his charitable work, and his company’s willingness to make films focusing on social justice issues.
Weinstein gave the interview from a hospital room while recovering from surgery, leading some to speculate he was possibly looking to engender sympathy. The Post noted that Weinstein was in the luxury wing of the hospital, which features marble bathrooms, Italian linens and original framed artwork, a private chef, a concierge, and cucumber-infused water. If you’re a once powerful executive facing criminal assault allegations the last thing you want to do is demonstrate you’re still a person of great wealth.
Then there’s the 57-page PowerPoint presentation entitled, “The Proper Narrative for Addressing the Harvey Weinstein Case” Team Weinstein sent to reporters. The document claims there is “no objective support” for any of the claims women have lodged against Weinstein.
Here’s a media tip you can take to the bank: Sending reporters a document advising them of the “proper narrative” they should adhere to is a surefire way to invite a hatchet job. According to The Cut, the PowerPoint isn’t even a polished document, as it contains frequent “shifts in tone, voice, font size, and color, and seems to include some draft notes (‘[ask HW: did they actually meet? Seems possible]’) and strike-throughs.”
Weinstein’s lawyers are also talking up a storm, granting extensive interviews about their client, their legal strategy, and what a legal victory would to their careers. Donna Rotunno, Weinstein’s lead lawyer, has made the media rounds declaring that Weinstein is being made a “scapegoat” for the #MeToo movement and that she will expose “lies” from some of his accusers. In my experience, the best lawyers argue their cases in court, not the media.
Most telling of all is Weinstein’s comment that, “I feel like the forgotten man.” Despite years of bad publicity, Weinstein remains oblivious to the pain and anguish 100 women say he’s caused them. For that matter, it’s unlikely that any adult of this generation will forget Weinstein.
Regardless of political persuasion, Americans are united in their outrage about Weinstein’s behavior. The #MeToo movement regards him as the patron saint of oppressive corporate patriarchy. For supporters of Donald Trump, who dismissed sexual assault claims leveled against Brett Kavanaugh, Weinstein reaffirms their belief that Hollywood is rife with sexual predators and perverts.
Even if Weinstein prevails at trial, Rotunno is badly mistaken that “he will come back bigger than before.” If Weinstein avoids conviction, he’d be wise to leave the courtroom in silence and avoid any talk about being “vindicated.” Few Americans will regard the decision as a great day for American jurisprudence.