Happy new year! As we look back at the moments and trends that defined 2022, five events stood out in the news and on our social media feeds. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest pop culture moments of the year and the PR lessons we learned from each of them.
1. Will Smith Slaps Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards
On March 27, 2022, audiences around the world watched with shock as Oscar nominee and the beloved “Fresh Prince,” Will Smith, walked onstage and assaulted presenter and comedian Chris Rock over a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Later in the evening, Smith won the award for Best Actor and apologized to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and other nominees in his acceptance speech, but not to Rock. Smith later apologized to Rock and the Academy on social media, resigned his Academy membership and was banned from Academy events for 10 years.
American business magnate Warren Buffet once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” A night that should have been a career highlight for Smith instead irrevocably tarnished his reputation, all due to one bad decision. The Academy also faced criticism over its slow response (or lack thereof), highlighting the importance of not only preparing for all potential scenarios in a live international broadcast such as the Oscars, but also having crisis plans in place for timely and comprehensive responses.
2. Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard
In spring of 2022, worldwide audiences were captivated by the seven-week defamation trial between movie star exes Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. The contentious trial featured emotional testimonies, vulgar text messages, secretly filmed footage and more of the former couple’s most vulnerable moments for the world to see. Depp fans, in particular, began social media campaigns criticizing Heard’s arguments and tearing down Heard’s witnesses, such as the psychiatrist and the orthopedic surgeon who testified in support of Heard’s claims, both of whom had their Google and WebMD reviews immediately flooded with negative reviews.
Ultimately, Heard was found liable for three instances of defamation and Depp was found liable for one defamatory statement. However, on social media, Heard seems to be found entirely guilty in the court of public opinion, despite the fact that Depp also lost a similar case in the UK and the proof that violence unfortunately came from both people in this marriage. Vox senior correspondent Constance Grady stated, “Strikingly for our post-Me Too world, both the jury and the loudest voices on the internet overwhelmingly sided with Depp.” This goes to show just how much power comes from crafting a narrative and controlling your public reputation. Businesses and public figures can prepare for similar situations by developing a social media crisis plan.
3. Don’t Worry Darling Drama
When Harry Styles said, “My favorite thing about the movie is, like, it feels like a movie,” it was just the latest puzzling moment in a series of chaotic events from the Don’t Worry Darling set. Controversy surrounding casting shakeups, on-set romance, rumored tension between the lead actress and the film’s director and of course, #spitgate, overshadowed the release of the film in the news and on social media.
Speculation swirled as statements from lead actress Florence Pugh and former lead actor Shia LaBeouf seemed to contradict statements from director Olivia Wilde, all while Wilde’s budding relationship with Styles and separation from ex-fiance Jason Sudeikis were being watched. So, our first recommendation is to never mix business with pleasure. But, if it’s too late for that, make sure to get all your spokespeople media trained with unified key messages that shift the focus back to project, rather than the drama behind the scenes.
4. James Corden Banned from Balthazar Restaurant
James Corden is best known in the United States as the bubbly host of The Late Late Show on CBS and the creator of Carpool Karaoke. However, in October of 2022, he was publicly banned from Balthazar, a French restaurant in Manhattan owned by Keith McNally, after yelling at staffers for getting his order wrong and allegedly finding a hair in his food. McNally posted on Instagram calling Corden “a tiny cretin of a man” and “the most abusive customer to my Balthazar servers since the restaurant opened 25 years ago.”
Similar to what we saw with Ellen Degeneres in 2020, audiences will rightfully feel upset and betrayed if a television host’s public persona does not align with their behavior behind the scenes. For celebrities, CEOs and other public figures, make sure to practice what you preach. With the proliferation of social media, if your brand identity does not align with the way you’re actually treating your collaborators, employees or even strangers on the street, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world finds out.
5. Elon Musk Takes Over Twitter
Elon Musk’s ongoing takeover of Twitter continues to evolve as we enter 2023. The billionaire CEO of Tesla and SpaceX had previously criticized the platform’s freedom of speech and expressed interest in purchasing the platform as early as 2017. He started purchasing Twitter shares in January 2022, made a $43 billion offer in April, tried to terminate the deal in July, got sued by Twitter for breaching a legally binding purchase agreement and officially completed the acquisition on October 27.
Among other significant changes, Musk immediately fired top Twitter executives and laid off a significant portion of the company’s staff, often without proper notice. Twitter users and advertisers observed as former employees spoke out about the “inhumane” layoffs and sued the company for multiple labor rights violations, causing several advertisers to pause or pull their ad campaigns. This is a crisis that could have been completely prevented with internal communications. Communicating difficult news, such as layoffs, must be approached with genuine empathy, honesty and humanity. Instead, we saw Musk also lay off several employees from Twitter’s communications department, essentially killing all internal and external communications from the company.