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Navigating Public Scrutiny in Celebrity Crises

Published on April 12, 2024 at 5:49 p.m.
by Halston Seton.

When a person becomes a public figure, it can be difficult for them to navigate how to maintain a private life, especially in a crisis. Because the ethical line is so blurred for public figures’ privacy, most of their crises become exposed quickly, and they are shown little to no sympathy, no matter the subject. It can be a struggle for public relations professionals to determine how to go about these situations.

Although celebrities have privacy expectations, most of their private life isn’t truly private. As the media relations director at Transportation Corridor Agencies, Michelle Kennedy, noted, “Public figures are just that … public. There is an expectation that privacy is limited for those in the spotlight.”

For example, when Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux went through their divorce, the media didn’t allow them the smallest bit of privacy, which seemingly made their situation worse. Some public figures receive more hate from the media than others, but why? There is no right answer. The media does what it wants and chooses who it likes and doesn’t like; it is unpredictable.

Photo via Adobe Stock by Kristina Blokhin

“Not every celebrity should necessarily be regarded as a public figure, nor should their personal lives be considered ‘matters of public concern,’” Robin Barnes, University of Connecticut law professor, said in a UConn Today article. Her book “Outrageous Invasions” published in 2010 discussed media portrayals of the lives of several public figures. She noted that citizens should be able to obtain information on public officials, and posed the question, “Does that entail us to know everything about Monica Lewinsky’s dress? Why throw every athlete, actor, and musician into the same pot?” Barnes added that, in France, pictures lacking public interest cannot be published without the celebrity’s consent. It’s details like these that make people question whether or not the correct privacy regulations are in place within the U.S.

But what happens when a celebrity is going through a crisis and another celebrity comments on it? How can we determine if that privacy line has been crossed?

Kennedy stated, “I think situations vary where it might be appropriate to comment, especially when it is positive. … On the flip side, being negative can have far-reaching negative brand impacts.”

Unraveling the speculation

Photo via The Prince and Princess of Wales’ Instagram (@princeandprincessofwales)

Most recently, Kate Middleton faced a health crisis, and before she took the opportunity to come out with her own statement, other celebrities commented on the situation, poking fun at the fact that Middleton had been “missing” for months. In January 2024, the Princess of Wales underwent abdominal surgery — which was not speculated to be cancer-related — and began chemotherapy in February 2024.

Before Middleton’s statement video was released, it became a trend on various social media platforms to speculate where she was and what she was doing. Everyone, from talk show hosts to the most famous celebrities, participated in the trend of “Where’s Kate?” Not only did this trend evolve, but AI-produced images of the princess also appeared in tabloids. Many tried to claim their way to fame by posting these fake images.

How far is too far?

Blake Lively and Kim Kardashian are two major celebrities who received extreme backlash after Middleton’s crisis statement was released. Because there were obviously overly edited photos of Middleton online and posted by thousands of people, Lively took this situation as an opportunity to promote her own brand, Betty Buzz. The actress and mother shared an “over-the-top photo of herself featuring her product,” according to Time Magazine.

As a result, many loyal fans shamed Lively on her social media for being heartless toward the princess. To apologize for acting insensitive, Lively posted an Instagram story that stated, “I’m sure no one cares today but I feel like I have to acknowledge this. I made a silly post around the ‘photoshop fails’ frenzy, and oh man, that post has me mortified today. I’m sorry.”

In addition, Kim Kardashian participated in the trend by posting an Instagram picture of herself standing next to a car with the caption, “On my way to go find Kate.” Even with the endless amount of hate Kardashian is receiving from this post, she has neither removed the post from her page nor put out an apology statement.

Ethics in question

Photo via The Prince and Princess of Wales’ Instagram (@princeandprincessofwales)

The question remains: Was it necessary for the Princess of Wales to release a statement after so much speculation? Once again, determining the right answer is complicated when it comes to media relations strategy in a crisis situation.

“I think that the Kensington Palace media relations failed her by taking a long strategic silence approach for so long,” said Dr. Courtney Boman, a crisis communications professor at The University of Alabama. “There was no reason for the story to spiral out of control like it did and gain as much conspiracy theory traction.”

Health-related crises are a delicate subject that many have their own opinions about, but from the information that has been released about the princess, some have concluded that she should have been able to deal with it in her own way. Medical ethicist Keisha Ray stated that it is a basic medical right and “there may be political or diplomatic reasons to keep health issues private.”

Celebrities may have certain expectations when it comes to privacy, but as technology advances, public scrutiny becomes more difficult to navigate.

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