Kevin Hart’s failure to quickly and effectively respond to controversy over his homophobic tweets shows that celebrities have little margin for error when faced with a burgeoning scandal. Over the span of 24 hours, Hart’s dreams of hosting the Oscars went up in smoke after the comic offered up two non-apologies that were alternately churlish, defiant, and indignant.
“In this day and age you’ve got minutes, if not seconds to deal with a crisis,” said Andrew Blum, head of the crisis PR firm AJB Communications. “You always offer the most apologetic statement first and he didn’t.”
That didn’t happen. Instead, it was only on his third attempt, following two Instagram videos that public relations gurus say were tone deaf, that Hart seemed to recognize he’d hurt people.
“I sincerely apologize to the LGBTQ community for my insensitive words from my past,” he tweeted on Thursday night after formally pulling out as Oscar host. Alluding to the fact that most of his anti-gay jokes were from before 2012, Hart added, “I’m sorry that I hurt people. I am evolving and want to continue to do so. My goal is to bring people together not tear us apart.”
Hart is just the latest in a long line of celebrities who have struggled to find the right way to respond to a crisis. From Paula Deen to Mel Gibson, many former stars have crashed and burned because they failed to offer apologies that seemed genuine and acknowledged the pain their actions had caused.
“Get your ego and pride out of the way,” advises Howard Bragman, a longtime Hollywood crisis manager and chairman and founder of La Brea Media. Moreover, Bragman says, don’t drag things out.
“Try to get it right the first time,” he adds. “Be up front and try to do it once and well.”
A lot is at stake. Often, the impact on careers from a public relations blunder can be seismic. Deen essentially lost her cooking empire after she was accused of using racist language, Gibson spent over a decade as a near-pariah in the film business after he was caught on tape using anti-Semitic slurs during a DUI arrest (although he eventually crept back into the business), and Tiger Woods saw endorsement deals dry up after he failed to properly respond to a cheating scandal. Bragman points to comedian Tracy Morgan as one of the rare celebrities who sounded the proper notes of contrition. After the comic was caught on tape in 2011 unleashing an anti-gay tirade during a standup appearance, Morgan apologized and called homophobia “a sickness.” He later teamed up with the LGBTQ advocacy group to participate in an anti-bullying PSA.
In some respects, Hart’s blunders are surprising. The comic has shown a deft touch on social media. His habit of sharing updates on his social and professional life has resulted in more than 34 million Twitter followers and 66 million Instagram fans — an audience that he charges studios millions of dollars to access. And yet, those same platforms led to his ouster as Oscar host after journalists began unearthing offensive jokes that Hart made about how horrorible it would be to have a gay child, as well as multiple other times he used homophobic language. Hart’s 11th-hour deletion of some of the worst tweets only added fuel to the story.
He also missed his chance to use his power positively. “Kevin Hart shouldn’t have stepped down; he should have stepped up,” said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis.“Hart’s apology to LGBTQ people is an important step forward, but he missed a real opportunity to use his platform and the Oscars stage to build unity and awareness. We would still welcome that conversation with him. The Academy has recently made significant strides in featuring diverse talent onstage and they should now double down on that commitment as they look for a new host.”
Public relations gurus also fault the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, the group behind the Oscars, for failing to properly vet Hart.
“The problem is with the Oscar selection committee,” said Laura Guitar, a crisis PR specialist and an EVP at rbb communications. “They should have known about the tweets before Hart was even announced as Oscar host. If they’d done their job they could have developed a response in advance. They didn’t do their homework.”