Will Smith Video’s Crisis PR Lessons

Photo illustration of Will Smith
Photo Illustration: VIP+; AP Photo

An open question hovers unanswered over the latest Will Smith apology he issued last week: Why now all of the sudden after months of silence?

Let’s give credit where credit is due: The actor is at least trying to demonstrate he’s on the road to repentance. For too long after the Oscars, it seemed like no more would be said on the matter.

But surely there must be some reason he’s resurfacing at this juncture. Yes, Chris Rock briefly addressed the controversy in a standup show last week, but not in any substantive way that demanded Smith reply.

Here’s a guess: It’s hard not to imagine some career opportunity, like a new film project, popped up, requiring some kind of public demonstration of remorse again ASAP with the purpose of studying the reaction to gauge how much goodwill is left among his fans. No sense handing the man a project if there’s signs the cloud of controversy he kicked up has yet to dissipate.

The most obvious scenario might be that this has something to do with Apple, which already bought what was meant to be Smith’s next project, the slave drama “Emancipation.” Originally slated for late 2022, the film was reportedly going to move to 2023 to put more separation between the Oscars and a release that could have easily seen the movie overshadowed by offstage drama. 

Smith also had a number of projects put on hold at the time of the controversy, any one of which might be percolating again.

The stakes are high here not just for Apple but for the rest of the industry, which has counted on Smith to be one of the most bankable performers across film, TV and the Internet that Hollywood has seen in decades. But as tarnished as Smith is, he can navigate the road to recovery if he makes the right moves. Just ask Mr. All the Right Moves himself, Tom Cruise, who demonstrated that this year with “Top Gun: Maverick” that he could put his couch-jumping days behind him. 

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this video is so bad that it sets back his career-rehabilitation efforts, but it certainly does fail to be something that could have contributed positively to those efforts. 

One fault is evident in the very first question he answers: "Why didn’t you apologize to Chris Rock in your acceptance speech?” 

In the answer to the Rock question, he’s clearly placing the ball in the comedian’s court by explaining that he reached out to him to personally apologize, but the apology hasn’t yet been accepted. Saying this represents an ill-advised risk because if Rock were to respond that no such overture has been made, Smith is going to look terrible. 

But there is so much left unsaid as well, and perhaps that’s by design. Midway through the video Smith remarks, “I spent the last three months replaying and understanding the nuances and the complexities of what happened in that moment. And I’m not going to try to unpack all of that right now.”

OK, so if he’s not going to unpack that now, when does that happen. Perhaps this video is meant to be a prelude to hearing yet more from Smith, perhaps in a venue where he won’t seem as controlled, such as an Oprah Winfrey interview or on his wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s “Red Table Talk.” Who knows when that will happen but that’s why Smith deserves some credit here for speaking up at all at a time when his silence was starting to feel rather conspicuous. 

He hasn't completely cleared the air yet, but perhaps that’s still to come.  

This commentary is the latest in a series for Variety Intelligence Platform subscribers that analyzes what no textbook devoted to crisis PR would be complete without: an assessment of how Will Smith has tried to repair his career in the wake of his Oscars fiasco. In the immediate aftermath of the awards show, VIP+ urged him to do more than just offer a written mea culpa. He didn't face the challenge of Chris Rock, who was counseled to turn the slap into the defining moment of his own career. Then there was the matter of how Apple should handle "Emancipation," which was scheduled to be Smith's next film release. We also addressed the price Smith would pay if he waited too long to break his silence. Now that he finally has, the timing of that apology is also examined.