Harvey Weinstein is making his sex harassment scandal worse by failing to grapple with the severity of the situation, crisis PR experts say.
Experts consulted by Variety faulted Weinstein’s initial response to the New York Times’ expose as narcissistic, and said any contrition he may have shown was immediately undermined by his bellicose threats to sue.
“This was his one opportunity to speak to victims,” says Richard Levick, a crisis PR expert in Washington, D.C. “It was one of the worst written apologies I’ve ever seen in a crisis situation.”
Weinstein appeared to be pursuing contradictory strategies, hiring sex harassment lawyer Lisa Bloom to help him demonstrate remorse while also employing media attack dog Charles Harder to go after the Times.
“This will not be a strategy that makes the future easy for him,” says Elizabeth Toledo, president of Camino PR. “This will be a strategy that continues to position him as someone who’s out of touch.”
Toledo, who handled Planned Parenthood’s response to an undercover video controversy in 2015, says Weinstein seems to believe that he can continue to buy his way into good PR by supporting liberal causes. That will not work this time, she says.
“This is a moment to stop and truly change course,” she says. “He’s got to indicate a true understanding of the abuse and the damage that people are talking about… It can’t be about him personally. It’s got to be about the people he harmed. It is not about his personal journey. It’s not about his personal reformation. It’s not about his political priorities. It’s not about the NRA, or the place he had his bar mitzvah. This is about women.”
Weinstein appears to have had months to prepare a response to the allegations, and brought in a high-powered team of advisors to help him navigate the situation. In addition to Bloom and Harder, he also hired Washington, D.C., crisis expert Lanny Davis, a veteran of President Clinton’s scandals of the 1990s, who famously counsels clients to tell their side of the story as fully as possible.
“I’m hoping for Lanny’s sake that he didn’t follow Lanny’s advice,” Levick says. “There seems to be neither strategy nor sincere remorse. You see too many chefs in the kitchen. To the extent they have any strategy, it’s all falling apart.”
Several experts doubted that Weinstein would follow through on his threat to sue the paper, saying it would be foolish to open himself up to discovery. Instead, it is possible he is seeking to intimidate other women from coming forward.
“From a personal reputation point of view, suing the New York Times only serves one purpose, and that is to keep the story alive,” says Bruce Rubin, a Miami crisis PR expert. “The saber-rattling strategy just isn’t going to work.”
The denials may only encourage other women to tell about their experiences, experts say. Instead, Levick says he would counsel Weinstein to pursue a “Betty Ford strategy,” referring to the former First Lady’s candid revelation of her alcoholism.
“It’s simple, you provide a heartfelt statement of apology, and you mean it, and you disappear and you go into counseling,” Levick says. “And then what you do is have others talk about the good work you have done throughout your career. Him doing it himself sounds narcissistic. All he has done by responding the way he has is lit the tinderbox, and encouraged others to come out now… He’s made himself a really attractive target by seeming so insincere.”
So far, though, it appears Weinstein simply isn’t in a position to accept good advice.
“Sometimes it’s really tough for people in power to recognize how profoundly their world has shifted,” Toledo says. “He’s now going to be held publicly accountable for these decisions he’s made, and it’s not going to be a winning strategy for him at the end of the day to try to bully his way out of it.”