A PR Crisis: How to Manage Will Smith's Oscars Slap – Boston University

Eventual Best Actor winner Will Smith hits presenter Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars on Sunday, March 27, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Photo by Chris Pizzello/AP Photo
With one hard swing of his open right hand across the cheek of comedian Chris Rock, Will Smith created his very own public relations crisis. The question now is: what should he do about it?
While presenting the Oscar for documentary feature during Sunday night’s Academy Award ceremony, Rock turned his snark toward actor Jada Pinkett Smith, who was in the audience to support her husband, Will, up for the year’s Best Actor award for King Richard. Rock joked that Jada would appear in an upcoming G.I. Jane sequel because of her cropped haircut. But to those in the know, Jada suffers from alopecia and has been open about her hair loss, the joke felt more cruel than funny.
While Will Smith appeared to laugh at first, he quickly strode up to the stage and smacked Rock across the face, leaving the audience stunned and confused: was this staged as part of the ceremony? But when Smith returned to his seat and released a profanity-ridden tirade against the comedian, the audience, along with millions of viewers watching from home, realized it was no act. An hour later, Smith accepted the Best Actor award for portraying the controversial coach and father of the tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams.
“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith said during his speech. “Love makes you do crazy things.” He later apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees, but not to Rock.
The aftermath was swift on social media, with camps divided into Team Rock and Team Smith, and the Academy launching an investigation and releasing a statement saying: “The Academy does not condone violence of any form.” Did Rock’s joke go too far, mocking a woman’s medical condition, or did Smith overreact to humor that was merely in poor taste? 
BU Today reached out to three College of Communication professors with expertise in crisis management: Gary Sheffer, COM’s Sandra R. Frazier Professor of Public Relations and a professor of the practice, and Amy Shanler and Justin Joseph, both COM associate professors of the practice, for what they would advise Smith and the Academy as they try to manage the fallout from the slap.
Amy Shanler: In those moments of the “oh no” variety, where a client does something unexpected, or in this case, wrong, the key is that the apology is so important. While Will Smith may perceive that his wife was the victim, as the target of Chris Rock’s humor, what he actually did was reframe the entire situation to make Chris Rock the victim of his assault. He needs to apologize, provide retribution [Editor’s note: Smith issued an apology on his Instagram page on Monday night]. The challenge is you’re at a live, visible, public event, surrounded by people, and everyone wants to know what you’re saying. It would be challenging in that environment to say something meaningful.  

Justin Joseph: We always talk about genuine communication, and genuine would have most likely been in the moment. When Smith accepted his Oscar, I would have counseled him to use that opportunity to heal and to correct things, rather than [use it as] an opportunity to justify your own behavior. In terms of an apology, he should have made it to the victim of the assault, Chris Rock. Apologizing in that moment is hard, your emotions are high, you’re angry, you want to believe you’re the protector of the family (as he said), so there’s this true sense of “I’m the victim here.” We’ve said this a million times to clients: whenever you feel like you’re the victim, it cuts off your total perspective on what the other victims might be feeling at this moment. I also would have counseled him to actually address what took place during his acceptance speech, to not just vaguely go around it. You can bring in your reasoning, but at the same time it is still going to be, “I was wrong, and here’s why.” And then an apology. The conversation would be completely different the next day. 

Action speaks way louder than words. It could be a private phone call to Chris Rock. I would be curious to see what Chris Rock does.

Shanler: The ball is in Will Smith’s court to make this right.   
Gary Sheffer: When you’re in a crisis and you decide you should make an apology, that’s a big decision. I teach corporate issues in crisis management, and when a company decides it will apologize, it means it is admitting some level of responsibility. Often in those cases there will be an intense conversation with the legal team about making the apology and thereby increasing your chances for being sued and admitting some level of liability. There are bad apologies and good apologies.

I think he should make an apology. I know he made the beginnings of an apology last night, but he should apologize again. If I were advising him, I would tell him to call Chris Rock personally, but he also ought to apologize again to the Academy, the viewers, and even his wife. That would be my recommendation.
Sheffer: You have to acknowledge you did something wrong, and what you did requires an apology. It has to be authentic, don’t try to justify it, because that makes people think you’re not sincere. Ben Franklin said, “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” That holds true today. He shouldn’t announce he’s going into anger management or anything like that. It has to be a straight, heartfelt apology that it was obviously wrong. 
Sheffer: If I were the Academy, I think they need to do more [they issued a brief statement saying they don’t condone violence]. I think they are in a position where they have to either pull back his Oscar or say he is no longer a member of the Academy, if I were advising them. As much as you can justify it, based on the poor taste of the joke, it was an assault, and you can’t condone those things whether it’s in a ballroom or in the street. If I were Will Smith, I’d get out with another statement as soon as I can, to maybe try to head off some action from the Academy. 

Joseph: Anytime a venue is the site of a violent attack or event, going back to the Malice at the Palace between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers a few years ago, the venue is responsible. You created a place where a person could walk up on stage and just slap another person. There was no security afterwards, no one removed Will Smith from the premises. It was almost like, “Let’s not talk about it.” And that’s the Academy’s work. I would say there needs to be a more specific apology. And we go back to action—what are you going to do about it so that people are never put in that unsafe position again? It’s not like there is no precedent at an awards ceremony where a person got up from their seat and up to the stage. We saw that with Kanye West and Taylor Swift. There needs to be clear guardrails and then protection and security. And they didn’t remove the person. And that’s something they probably need to answer to. 

Shanler: We always look at what was the context and the environment in which the action festered. We really have to look at—this is the Academy’s job, I’m not saying [the assault] is Chris Rock’s fault—but what were the expectations for the entertainment that evening? Where is the line? What’s respectful versus what’s humorous? When we’re talking about humor at someone’s expense, you could argue that making fun of someone for a role they chose, well the person chose it, they accepted it. But to make fun of someone’s physical condition, or race, their background, their culture, the Academy has to set that standard that it’s entirely not acceptable. Again I’m not saying it’s Chris Rock’s fault, but we have to look at the entirety and the context of the situation. All the factors that contributed to this boiling over.
Sheffer: If I were a brand manager, I would certainly sideline him for a while. As when Aaron Rogers said some things that weren’t true about vaccination, you saw State Farm pull his ads, but not fire him. If I were a brand manager, I’d be thinking twice about continuing a relationship with him, even though it’s not like he has a pattern of this. Unfortunately, this ruined his own night and ruined the biggest achievement of his career.
Sheffer: I would. I saw a photo where his publicist came running over to him. It’s not a pattern that I know of, he just lost his temper at the most inopportune time. He seems to be apologetic or remorseful about it. I would keep him as a client since, at least to my knowledge, there isn’t a track record of being an abusive person.

Joseph: Yes.

Shanler: Yes, as long as the person is doing the right thing, as long as they are making amends. We all make mistakes. I don’t want to belittle his actions because assault is not OK, but if he is truly remorseful and can make amends and learn from his experience, that is a lesson that can benefit a lot of people.
A PR Crisis: How to Manage Will Smith’s Oscars Slap
Amy Laskowski is a senior writer at Boston University. She is always hunting for interesting, quirky stories around BU and helps manage and edit the work of BU Today’s interns. She did her undergrad at Syracuse University and earned a master’s in journalism at the College of Communication in 2015. Profile
Boston University moderates comments to facilitate an informed, substantive, civil conversation. Abusive, profane, self-promotional, misleading, incoherent or off-topic comments will be rejected. Moderators are staffed during regular business hours (EST) and can only accept comments written in English. Statistics or facts must include a citation or a link to the citation.
Unfortunately, this will feed the racist stereotype that Black men are violent.
Had he been an usher or an audience member not recognizable to the general public, he would have been escorted out immediately. Probably into the custody of the police. It was a crime. Maybe not a major crime, but a crime. He gets to assault someone and then be handed an award instead of being booted out because he is rich and famous.
I looked for an article about what his PR team might do. Whatever they do, he has lost my respect forever. This was not some simple mistake. He assaulted someone. Over a joke that was insensitive. That is astoundingly terrible behavior. And this apparently isn’t the first time. I won’t be watching his performances and not because this was unforgivable. Rather because all I will see is an entitled guy who thinks he can do as he pleases and all will be okay later.
These PR apologies have no force but words published from a team of people a corporation or rich person can hire, and with little meaning.
The whole premise of this article is in poor taste and exactly what so many students become frustrated about – “let’s use PR to excuse behaviors of corporations and the rich.” Or, one of Boston University’s deans or executives did something inappropriate, let’s have some things ready for our corporate response.
Justifying violence like this, without consequences, is the problem. When does it become ok for a student to slap a teacher when they present an opinion they don’t agree with? Or how about slapping another student? Then, (incoming sarcasm alert) let’s issue an apology from our PR team that sounds like we have all the right words and promise to be polite in the future. Your public image will be saved for just a few dollars towards your high-end PR firm.
No, charge the actor with assault. Take away the award. Ban them from the premises for future events. Actions will speak louder than these corporate PR words.
I very much agree that PR apologies are worthless. They have nothing to do with anything other than trying to repair damage done to the money machine.
I was merely curious as to what a PR plan might be.
I don’t care what happens to his career. As you point out, he assaulted someone. He should be charged with the crime he committed. Were he not rich and famous he would have very likely been treated very differently last night. And he should have been.
How about a program to help the young children (especially boys) who are
kicked out of school for lesser actions? How about COM working with Wheelock to help all the kids in crisis?
The state of our country is a crisis. This is a distraction.
What if Wanda Sykes said the same joke and was assaulted by Will — would the narrative be different? People should be just as offended if a man was assaulted. The fact that people in the audience weren’t outraged just confirms that Hollywood is still living in their own elitist bubble. I bet if a parent at a school board meeting did the same thing for the same reason, they would have spent the night in jail. He got a standing ovation and went out partying.
While Will Smith’s act is disgraceful, and the result of a privilege, power and entitlement, to me, it is unsurprising that he thought it’s okay to do this for another reason. Our culture and institutions now preach an extreme ideology that speech is violence, that the wrong words can put people in mortal danger, that it is ONLY the listener’s subjective perception of how offensive the words are that entitle them to label a speaker a good or evil. A speaker can VICTIMIZE listeners if they say the “wrong thing”, you see. This ideology totally rejects the listener’s responsibility in all this, for instance to a) interpret in a charitable way b) not to be overly sensitive, c) avoid hysterical over reaction, d) muster up the wisdom to see that words while having the power to offend are most often NOT the same as physical harm,
But unfortunately these ideas have now gone mainstream and permeate almost every facet of public life. No matter how untethered to reality this belief system is, it can explain a lot about how a rich, privileged, mega-star like Smith can feel victimized by words and therefore think it’s okay to smack someone in the face on live TV in front millions. Notice he tearfully apologized to everyone EXCEPT to the one person who truly deserved it, Chris Rock. It is justified to do this because Rock’s words caused extreme emotional pain you see. Perhaps if Rock said something meaner it would justify using a closed fist in the face?
This is what the ideology looks like in practice.
Will Smith has shredded his reputation.
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