The venture is six months in the making, but it launches at a timely moment and fills a clear industry need. The goal is to help studios, agencies and other corporate entities get ahead of crises where past inappropriate social media messaging and other indiscretions are unearthed and damage everything from movies to TV series, to the Academy Awards. Foresight is going to institute a vetting process, as well as a playbook to proactively handle those crises.
Celebrities, and their movies and series projects, are blowing up weekly because of articles and viral spreading of past bad behavior or inflammatory social media missives that reflect horribly in the optics of the #MeToo moment. The service will look to sign clients in all facets of entertainment, helping them identify risks, and offer strategies to proactively deal with or defuse issues before they become full-blown crises.
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The list of casualties keeps expanding. The Academy just watched the implosion of its plan for Kevin Hart to host the Oscars, when decade old homophobic tweets were regurgitated and raised the ire of advocacy groups like GLAAD; Disney removed James Gunn from directing a third Guardians of the Galaxy film hours after alt-right journalists dredged back up old satirical Gunn tweets that seemed to celebrate sex and violence toward children, this after Gunn criticized Donald Trump; and Best Picture candidates Green Book (co-writer Nick Vallelonga’s 2015 tweet about Muslims dancing on a Jersey rooftop after 9/11) and Bohemian Rhapsody (director Bryan Singer, fired two weeks before production wrapped, was the subject of an Atlantic magazine exposé alleging sexual indiscretions with underage partners) have been placed on the defensive.
Other incidents have included: Best Picture candidate The Birth of a Nation being undone several years ago when details of writer-director Nate Parker’s rape trial while a college student was revealed and that the accuser committed suicide years later; festival film deals for Louis C.K. and Morgan Spurlock were rescinded after the comic’s past masturbatory indiscretions in front of female staffers got revealed and he finally admitted he’d done it. Spurlock threw himself under the bus by posting a Jerry Maguire-like self-purging mission statement baring infidelities and other things; James Franco becoming a target after unsavory social media posts right after he won the Golden Globes Best for The Disaster Artist, destroying that film’s awards momentum; Chris Hardwick and Aziz Ansari being undone by tweets that accused them of bad bedroom behavior. It has even impacted unmade film projects, like when Scarlett Johansson was shamed into withdrawing from playing a transgender in the nascent indie film Rub & Tug.
Some of these things happen in the moment and seem unavoidable, and many are triggered by press reports. Deadline broke that Hart was going to be the Oscar host before the Academy was ready and first bared details of Parker’s rape trial when he was an 18-year-old Penn State student, and revealed the Rub & Tug film package. Some of the reporting in the Atlantic article on Singer originated on Deadline. While Roseanne had a history of volatile social media messaging and eccentric behavior the last time she was on top, the racist tweet that forced Disney to fire her from the top rated resurrection of Roseanne couldn’t be defensed because who would imagine she would post it? But Louis C.K. left a trail of gossip stories rumoring that he masturbated in front of female staffers under his employ, and there was certainly no shortage of veiled reports about Singer, despite his denials. Parker’s court trial – he was found not guilty – was on his Wikipedia page and he had spoken publicly about it. Still, when his movie was selling for a record $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight several years ago, it’s clear nobody checked during the red-hot all-night auction. And why would they?
But there is plenty of room for vetting so that corporations aren’t always caught on the defensive. Many of the verbal indiscretions that fueled recent controversies occurred years ago and were dredged back up when subjects won a big award or got named to a big job. According to the Foresight principals, it’s only bound to get worse.
The Principal Communications Group partners, who as an ongoing PR concern rep clients including Marvel, Legendary, AT&T, Casey Wasserman and Peter Chernin, built this side business idea over six months, after observing and dealing with some of these crises, which too often catch corporations flat-footed as execs there have no idea how to respond to the media-fueled white hot fury. They are working closely with Edgeworth Security CEO Ken Young and Cyber Operations vice president Chad Brockway, two former Marines who have the wherewithal to unearth online problems before they rear up.
Vetting could have allowed the Academy to get ahead of those homophobic tweets by Hart.
As Deadline reported, the Academy several years ago gave Jerry Lewis the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and someone recalled that Lewis had said things construed as homophobic. He apologized before being named to receive the award, and the controversy was defused. Hart, by contrast, dug in and said he had apologized before and wasn’t doing it again. The Academy couldn’t accept that and Hart withdrew.
Foresight is designed to unearth these grenades in advance, before they explode, and chart proactive steps so that corporations aren’t always on the defensive, forced to react in an inflammatory moment where many have panicked. There has been no template to handle these incidents in advance. Foresight wants to provide one, for a fee, to clients that can range from studios, to talent agencies, and so on.
“We have reached this trajectory point because of the speed and accessibility of data, from what is available on the Internet to amplified social listening, coupled with the backdrop of information and evolving industry standards,” Zukerman told Deadline. “These elements have collided and the industry is spending so much time responding and scrambling and no time being preventative and creating solutions.
“What we want to do is be an industry partner to both the advocacy groups, the individuals who could be subjects of these things, and the studios and the media companies looking to do business in this era,” she said. “It’s a white space we can uniquely fill. We have the best possible technology, data and security partner. They place a premium on following the rules surrounding privacy. They uniquely understand our industry. We’ve bared witness to the evolution of this on all sides, we’ve also made conscious decisions to not work with those who do not fit our code of conduct. That code of conduct is the through line and cornerstone of our business model. We will not cover up any discriminatory act or any criminal behavior. Our business model has always been that the cover up is always worse than the crime.”
Said Pflug: “If someone wants to take their social media down, they can, but we’re not going to pretend that it was never there. That has to be part of the whole rehabilitation. You can’t cover that up, you have to own it. That is where we come in. We’re not playing judge or jury. Human nature is human nature. Part of why this is so relevant now is this plethora of information. You can get videos that were made where you attended a college frat party or a comment you posted on a Facebook page. Twitter is ten years old and a lot of the young, burgeoning talent you see or the talent that has pushed up since then, they posted on Twitter before anyone understood its power.
“We want to be able to provide the tools, the advice and counsel necessary to provide solutions,” he said. “We’ll provide the bells and whistles of online reputation management, SEO search, removing tweets. But that will be part of a larger program. We have built in sensitivity training. We will make sure we are working within a code of conduct with advocacy groups like GLAAD and Times Up, which want to see reformation and repair. We all need to understand what that looks like and how to move past wrongdoing. That’s one of the things we’re looking to partner on.”
What has become clear is that it is better to seize control of a volatile narrative rather than wait for it to be unveiled and then have to react.
“That’s why we call it Foresight,” Zuckerman said. “We’ve spent months fusing tech and capabilities of cyber intelligence with the PR skill set and expertise we have obtained through the years. It’s a powerful time in the industry because there’s more accountability towards behavior, and more scrutiny on that behavior. But there is also ten plus years of data and behavior online and accessibility to it. One thing our analysts have told us is only 45% of what’s discoverable on the web is on Google. There are so many corners of the web people don’t know exist.”
Said Pflug: “We think the attacks are going to get much more sophisticated on people, involving that additional 55% that doesn’t show up on Google. That’s another reason we’re jumping into the game.”
Loeb & Loeb’s Ivy Kagan Bierman put the pieces together.
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