PR experts on Will Smith’s now-infamous Oscars slap: ‘It’s what we do after a mistake that defines us’
Will Smith clinched his first-ever Academy Award last night for his role in ‘King Richard’ — but not before assaulting comedian Chris Rock for a joke he made about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith. Now, with the internet ablaze, experts in public relations and crisis communications assess how the debacle could hamper Smith’s reputation and commercial prospects — and what he needs to do to recover.
Will Smith apologized to the Academy and to fellow nominees in his acceptance speech, but left out any mention of Chris Rock / Adobe Stock
Will Smith is making headlines today after he slapped comedian Chris Rock onstage at the 2022 Academy Awards in what appears to be an unscripted confrontation. Following a joke that Rock made about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith shaved head, the actor came onstage and struck the comedian, who was hosting the event, across the face. In uncensored videos of the incident, Rock is seen saying, “Wow, Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me.” The actor appears to have returned to his seat before continuing to aggress Rock, yelling, “Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth.”
Pinkett Smith struggles with alopecia, a hair loss condition with no known cure. She shared her diagnosis in 2018 and has since been vocal about her experience living with the condition.
Per reports by CNN Monday afternoon, the Academy “strongly considered” ejecting Smith from the Oscars telecast following the act. Instead, shortly after the incident, Smith returned to the stage to collect his first-ever Oscar — the “Best Actor” award — which he won for his role in ‘King Richard’, a drama chronicling the come-ups of tennis superstars Serena and Venus Williams under the coaching of their father Richard Williams.
A tearful Smith said in his acceptance speech, in what was read by many as an allusion to the altercation with Rock: “To do what we do, you gotta be able to take abuse, you gotta be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business, you gotta be able to have people disrespecting you. And you gotta smile and pretend that that’s okay.” He went on to apologize to the Academy and to his fellow nominees. He quipped, "Art imitates life: I look like the crazy father [in the film ‘King Richard’]. Just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things." Notably absent from his apology was any direct address to Chris Rock.
The incident sent shockwaves across the internet, and in the immediate aftermath, celebrities weighed in on the matter. Stars including comedian Tiffany Haddish and Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air co-star Janet Hubert rushed to Smith’s defense, calling Rock’s joke out-of-line and praising the actor’s decision to defend his wife. Others, including Sophia Bush, Maria Shriver and Kathy Griffin were quick to label Smith’s actions as indefensible and inappropriate.
Yet, Smith was reportedly seen Sunday night dancing at Vanity Fair’s afterparty, gold Academy Award shining in hand. He declined to answer questions about the earlier altercation.
The Academy on Monday issued a statement saying that it “condemns” Will Smith’s behavior and that it will be launching a formal investigation into the event in accordance with the organization’s standards as well as California state law.
A hit to the wallet, too?
Outside of the potential legal implications for Smith, some PR and crisis communications professionals anticipate that the actor will suffer serious reputational damage. “All of the good will, actions, reputation-building and effort Will Smith has done for the industry over the past few decades went away in a matter of seconds,” says Dr. Karen Freberg, a PR and marketing expert who serves as associate professor of strategic communication at University of Louisville.
She points out that the images, videos and memes from the incident will live online forever and that, for Smith, it would serve him best to “be transparent and open to everyone about what happened, but realize that it will take… time, energy, and patience to rebuild the reputation.”
She adds that while Smith’s stardom will go on, “brands… will take pause before working with him in the future.”
Smith currently works with FitBit; together they launched a wellness campaign last summer. Fitbit could not be reached for comment about the incident. In the past, he has inked partnership deals with brands including Snapchat, sneaker company Onitsuka Tiger and others.
Others believe the incident won’t threaten the actor’s future in any meaningful way. “For celebrities, the rule is: ‘No news is no news, good news is good news and bad news is great news!’” says Robert Passikoff, founder and president of marketing consultancy and research firm Brand Keys. “It’s an Oscar moment that will live forever. If we’ve learned anything over the past two decades, [it's that] normal rules for brands don't apply anymore to celebrities. What happened has no effect on his acting abilities and likely [will not impact] his commercial prospects.”
The Academy at a point of reckoning
Depending on the outcome of the Academy’s investigation, the Academy may also suffer a reputational blow. While viewership of the 2022 Oscars, per the latest Nielsen data, surged 56% above last year’s — which saw historically low ratings — the Academy has taken hit after hit in recent years. In 2015 and 2016, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite picked up steam among criticism that the Academy’s nominees for its four acting categories were almost exclusively Caucasian.
In fact, in 2016, both Will Smith and wife Jada Pinkett Smith boycotted the event in protest of the show’s lack of diversity; the same year, Rock also poked fun at Pinkett Smith on the Oscars stage, saying: “Jada says she not coming, protesting. I’m like, ‘Ain’t she on a TV show?’ Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.”
Amid ongoing concerns about diversity in Hollywood and in the Academy, the Time’s Up movement took Hollywood by storm in 2018, forcing the Academy to reckon with issues concerning workplace harassment and misconduct that have run rampant in the entertainment industry for decades. Now, with an investigation underway, it could face further derision.
How the Academy chooses to proceed will prove a temperature check on its tolerance for aggression. For many entertainers and event hosts, the situation isn’t an entirely foreign one. The Drum’s own stage has seen its share of aggression; co-founder and editor-in-chief Gordon Young today explained what happened when a heckler came onstage and confronted comedian Phill Jupitus in light of what he perceived to be an offensive joke (TLDR; the guy was kicked out, fired, dumped and even arrested within the span of an hour or so). Young argues that although Rock’s joke may have crossed a line, violence cannot be defended. He suggests that the Academy should consider rescinding his award.
Ultimately, it’s what happens in the coming days that will influence how the public perceives both Smith and the Academy moving forward. "We all make mistakes. It's what we do after a mistake that truly defines us,” says Kelcey Kintner, senior vice-president at Red Banyan PR, a firm specializing in reputation management and crisis communications. “If [Smith] handles this honestly and openly, I think the Academy will absolutely welcome him back. It just may not be next year.”
She and Freberg both advise that, before anything else, Smith should apologize sincerely — and perhaps privately as well as publicly — to Rock. Kintner points out that the incident could also offer Smith and others the opportunity to shed more light on the challenges and realities of living with alopecia.