Taylor Swift and Scooter Braun: A Crisis PR Expert’s Take on ‘Scootergate’

"It’s a salutary lesson in the bad blood that will always emerge at the bitter crossroads of money and relationships."

This combination photo shows Taylor Swift at the Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, left, and Scooter Braun at the 2019 MOCA benefit in Los Angeles on May 18, 2019. Braun's Ithaca Holdings acquired Big Machine Label Group, home to Swift's first six albums, including the Grammy winners for album of the year, 2008's "Fearless" and 2014's "1989Music-Taylor Swift - 01 May 2019

Dylan Jones spent more than 20 years working in the music industry, specializing in public relations for MTV in his native England then moving on to Music Choice and EMI, where he led corporate communications for the recorded arm through its 2011 sale to Universal Music Group. Jones went solo soon after and currently holds the position of managing partner at Boldsquare, a strategic communications practice that provides crisis management and C-suite PR counsel. As its website boasts, Boldsquare specializes in “high pressure situations” like “dealing with changes in leadership, seismic shifts in your strategy or in the industry, high-profile litigation, or other complex and multi-layered issues.”

The recent spat between Taylor Swift and Scooter Braun over his $300 million purchase of Big Machine Label Group, home to the singer’s first six albums, prompted Jones to write a blog post about navigating tricky business situations in the public eye, reprinted below with permission.

Communications 101 With Taylor Swift

I’ve worked in many different sectors through the course of my career, but none of them has given me a greater ability to navigate crisis and complex issues than my time in the music industry. The many years I spent working at the intersection of business and popular music were better than any degree I could have studied for, and provided me with knowledge and real-life experience that I still use every single day in my professional life.

That came to mind again this [past] weekend, as a war of words broke out between Taylor Swift and the man who has just acquired the rights to her old music, Scooter Braun. Braun’s Ithaca Holdings announced an estimated $300 million deal for Big Machine Label Group, the Scott Borchetta-owned label that released Swift’s first six albums.

It’s fair to say Taylor isn’t happy about the agreement, claiming that she was “sad and grossed out,” and that all she could think about when she heard the news was the “Incessant, manipulative bullying I’ve received at [Scooter Braun’s] hands for years.” Borchetta denies her claims that she found out about the deal at the same time as the rest of the world, and insists he texted her the night before to let her know that the story was about to break. Since then, a succession of people have weighed in on the story from Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato on #TeamScooter, and Halsey and Cara Delavigne in the #WeStandWithTaylor camp.

Of course, Taylor Swift stories sell magazines and encourage clicks, and so it’s unsurprising that the news media has jumped all over the story. At the same time, the situation provides a valuable high-profile reminder of some communications-based imperatives that every company would do well to remember — regardless of whether they’re in the music business or not.

Texting is not a legitimate business communication channel
Whether Taylor Swift woke up to news of the sale or had been told the night before, one thing is clear: text messages are not an appropriate medium for important news. Texts are for letting your partner know that you’re on your way home, or for sending pictures of your dog to your mom. They’re not for more tricky messages like “I’ve sold my business to a guy that you hate.” Just ask the warehouse staff who were laid off by text message by Amazon last year. If you’re worried about how the other party might react, call a face-to-face meeting or get on the phone. Prepare well, explain your story, and keep it short. But always show some respect, regardless of how you feel that person has treated you in the past.

Keep all stakeholders on board during M&A
Selling a company isn’t easy. Sure, you have to maximize value, and do the right thing for the business. But there is a human impact to every single piece of M&A, ranging from the employee who is concerned that he or she might lose her job, through to the third parties who are worried whether their contract will survive a merger. Studies suggest that between 70 and 80% of all M&A fails, and a failure to understand people is one of the big reasons behind that. Have a comprehensive plan to hold the hand of all stakeholders through the announcement of a big merger or acquisition, and engage with the people that matter most to your business. Especially when one of those people has 119 million followers on Instagram.

Everybody has a voice
When it comes to Scootergate, nobody is holding back. First Taylor set the cat among the pigeons, then Scott Borchetta responded, before everybody from Scooter Braun’s wife to Justin Bieber threw their views into the ring. Social networks now allow everybody to make sure their views are known. Whether you’re an uber-rich pop star or a disgruntled employee, people now have the ability to get their opinion heard in a way that they’ve never had before. When poor behavior can be called out on anything from Glassdoor to Yelp, companies and executives have to redouble their commitment to ethical and transparent behavior.

Don’t ignore the power of emotion
Taylor Swift put a huge amount of effort into her first six albums, and rightly they are incredibly personal to her. Losing control of them – especially to someone she doesn’t appear to like – was never going to go well. Similarly, employees entrust their livelihoods and the security of their families to the companies they work for. If that seems to be under threat, you can expect emotions to play a factor in the response. Understand that people are not machines. A piece of business may make sound logical sense to a leader, but that doesn’t mean that people won’t react with their heart first.

For Taylor and Scooter, the story will no doubt run and run, inspiring songs and lawsuits along the way. For the rest of us, it’s a salutary lesson in the bad blood that will always emerge at the bitter crossroads of money and relationships.