Michelle Garrett, PR

Michelle Garrett

Whether you watched the Oscars on Sunday night or not, it’s more than likely you’ve heard about or seen a clip of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock on stage after Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith. The incident has not left the headlines since.

Michelle Garrett, a recognized PR leader and crisis comms expert (and one of our January webinar panelists), graciously agreed to speak with us about the incident from a crisis comms perspective.

Agility: What did you think of Chris Rock’s reaction on stage?

Michelle: Like most people, I was impressed that Rock managed to keep going. Not everyone would have been able to because it was quite a shock to everyone—including him, I’m sure. I saw a lot of praise for the way he responded initially.

There was discussion of removing Will Smith from the ceremony, but ultimately the Academy did not. What impact do you think this response by the Academy would have had?

It probably would have exacerbated the situation. It’s hard to say because we just don’t know how it would have been if they had taken him out, but I think it potentially could’ve blown it up into an even bigger crisis.

What do you think of Will Smith’s acceptance speech in which he apologized to the Academy and his fellow actors, but didn’t mention Rock by name?

I hesitate a little bit on that one because obviously the incident had just happened, and I think that Smith was probably still processing what was going on. I would have wanted him to perhaps mention Chris Rock and maybe say something about his own behavior, that perhaps there were other options for him to choose in that moment. But at that point, I don’t think Smith was prepared to or able to really go there during his speech.

The Academy responded to the incident on Twitter at 1:10 AM on Monday morning. The first part read, “The Academy does not condone violence of any form.” What do you think of the Academy’s response? 

I think it got a lot of backlash because if you look at the Academy’s past—who has been honored and received awards—we definitely see that there are situations where perhaps people were looking the other way. I saw a lot of people on social media talking about other situations in the Academy’s past that obviously don’t support their statement.

Putting you on the spot here, do you feel like the Academy should have waited to respond, or what kind of messaging do you feel that they should have or could have put out instead?

I think it’s always important to get out in front of a crisis, so in a way I applaud them for responding in a timely fashion because it took Will Smith a little longer—though it did happen within 24 hours, which I think a lot of people felt was acceptable. But if the Academy had maybe waited a little bit just to get some advice—I don’t know who they turned to in that situation; I’m sure they have PR people and lawyers and a whole team of people that were probably advising them on how to respond and what to say—maybe they should have thought through it a little bit more. You might think it sounds good, that it sounds okay, it covers the bases, but you really must think about how your message is going to be received by your audience. It was easy to poke holes in their response.

As you mentioned, Will Smith made a public apology within 24 hours on his Instagram. What do you think of his statement?

First of all, I was glad to see it. I think everybody was waiting to see what was going to happen. And even in the time that elapsed between the incident and the time his statement came out, people were already speculating about what kind of damage it was going to do to his career longer term, and of course, the Academy announced they were going to investigate further. And so, the more time that passed, the more the story was spiraling. I think it was really important for him to get it out there. I’m not sure that is going to be the end of it though. As with any crisis situation, we always wait for the dust to settle. We’ll have to see what the impact is going to be on his career and maybe what other steps he’s going to take to regain trust.

I don’t want to get into a bunch of background, but when this kind of situation happens and you draw attention to yourself in a negative way, people start dredging up your past. And in this case, I see that people, in some cases, are trying to do that because I saw his mother say, he’s never done anything like this in his whole life. But then there are people online who are pulling out examples from his past that are out there in the public if people look for them.

But I’m glad he apologized. I think it was sincere.

Let’s say you’re Will Smith’s publicist right now, would you have any recommendations on next steps?

I think now that he’s issued his apology, it might be a good idea to wait a little bit, let the dust settle, see where things lay. Chris Rock has a show in Boston tonight, so that’s going to add to the headlines. It’s been the top story all week, even though there are many other stories out there that probably should be getting a lot more attention than this story, but I’m sure that’s not a surprise to anybody in the business.

Also, I think we need to be looking at Jada [Pinkett Smith]. She’s come out and seems to have asked for everybody to forgive and heal. I feel like she’s been a little bit overlooked in the headlines and the stories. There have been stories about her and her condition, but I feel like we need to make sure that we are also focusing on that piece of it as well, because I think that’s at the heart of all of it.

It’s not just about Will Smith and Chris Rock.

Right. Some people have said that she was overlooked—not her role in it—but her feelings about it. That’s really what I’m talking about: following her lead or seeing what else she has to say, if anything. I imagine they may stay quiet because the Oscar board is meeting and there may be further ramifications. Smith and Pinkett Smith will probably have to come out with more statements. But for now, they’re probably going to take a pause. They’ve made a move and the ball’s probably no longer in their court.

As with any crisis time will tell. We’ve all had a response and reaction. Everybody that I know that was watching it or saw it after the fact has had an opinion or response. I think now we just have to sit back and watch. Time will tell as far as what the impact is on his career and on the Academy.