The head of the biggest music publicity firm in Nashville plans to “take some time away from the business” and remove his name from the firm, a rep announced Wednesday, the day after an article appeared in the Nashville Scene with allegations that founder and CEO Kirt Webster had sexually assaulted a client in 2008.
Earlier Wednesday, visitors to the Webster Public Relations website were greeted with an announcement that said: “As of November 1, 2017, Webster Public Relations is no longer in business” — a turn of events that would have left a client roster of over 100 in the lurch, including high-profile acts like Dolly Parton and Kid Rock, whose new album comes out Friday. However, hours later, a rep sent out an email saying the closing notice had been “mistakenly posted.”
“Webster Public Relations will continue operating — but under the name Westby Public Relations — while Kirt Webster takes some time away from the business to focus on combating the egregious and untrue allegations made against him,” said Stacey Nickens, a partner at another Nashville PR firm, DVL Seigenthaler. “The company’s work on behalf of its clients will continue under the leadership of Jeremy Westby, Kirt’s longstanding colleague.”
That turnabout didn’t please some former employees of Webster PR who have banded together to speak to the media about their own history with the firm. One angry publicist who formerly worked at the firm said that because of Westby and Webster’s long-term personal as well as professional relationship, “having him run the company is no different than Kirt.” The firm’s vice president, Scott Adkins, also quit the company on Wednesday to start his own firm.
The Nashville Scene article told the tale of former country singer Austin Rick, once professionally known as Austin Cody, who said that in 2008, at age 18, Webster asked him to strip naked and fondled his genitals in a hot tub at a party. Rick claimed that he eventually woke up in Webster’s bed being hugged and kissed by the publicist. “I know I was sexually assaulted; I don’t know if I was raped,” Rick told the paper, adding that he quit the business soon after, but has been dealing with psychological trauma ever since. Webster denied the claims in a company statement that said the CEO “has had multiple relationships over the course of his professional life, all of which have been consensual. This includes a brief relationship with Mr. Rick. It saddens Mr. Webster that nine years later, after Mr. Rick’s music career has been stagnant, Mr. Rick has taken the opportunistic approach of mischaracterizing that relationship and posting untrue allegations.”
The Nashville Scene story didn’t come as a complete surprise to locals in the music business, since Rick had previously set up a Gofundme page to solicit money for legal expenses he expected to incur in going up against Webster, drawing contributions from some fairly big names in the country music industry. Allegations of abusive behavior and sexual harassment had shown up in comment threads of other articles about Webster in years past, although Rick was apparently the first to go on the record.
Nashville NBC affiliate WSMV also reported to have spoken to several individuals who detailed similar behavior from Webster. One unnamed individual, allegedly a former employee with the firm, said he believes Webster drugged him, as he blacked out after a single drink at the CMA Fest in 2010, and therefore had to stay at Webster’s house.
Webster’s nearly instantaneous, if apparently temporary, exit from the company that bore his name surprised many in the industry, although some surmised that it may also have been a result of more than a dozen ex-employees already having talked to the local daily, the Tennessean, with harrowing personal stories about working at the firm.
Webster PR had been more active than ever in the weeks leading up to the controversy. The company recently hosted an event at Kid Rock’s Nashville property that had dozens of TV, radio, and press types posing for pictures with the crossover star. A week ago, Webster promoted Kenny Rogers’ farewell concert at the Bridgestone Arena, which also featured the firm’s most prominent client, Parton. When the president tweeted happy birthday greetings to Lee Greenwood last week (initially using the Twitter handle of the wrong Lee Greenwood), it was Webster PR sending out the press release.
Few of Webster’s clients are current country hitmakers. The firm is most famous for handling dozens of heritage acts at a time, like Hank Williams Jr., Tanya Tucker, Charley Pride, the Oak Ridge Boys, Crystal Gayle, and Billy Ray Cyrus, along with a lesser amount of up-and-comers like LoCash and Lucas Hoge. In recent years, they’ve taken on a greater number of non-country clients, like Cyndi Lauper, Kenny G, Meat Loaf, KC and the Sunshine Band, Don McLean, and Kiefer Sutherland. The firm also counted the controversial NRA Country among its corporate accounts.
A large group of former Webster employees approached Variety and other publications with an offer to speak out about their former boss, with one ex-publicist for the firm, who did not want to be identified, saying that Webster “emotionally, verbally and sexually abuses his employees.”
Attempts to reach Westby and other remaining execs or employees for comment were unsuccessful. For now, Webster continues to be listed as president and CEO on the company website, with a bio that begins, “You see Kirt Webster everywhere, shaking hands, making deals and getting results for his clients. Are there two of him? Three? Amazingly enough, there is only one Kirt Webster and we are all still trying to figure out how he does it… The secret of his success clearly lies in his creative spirit and kindness. Yes, we said kindness…”