When it comes to public relations successes and failures, 2022 was a rollercoaster of a year. Soaring highs and rattling lows were magnified by the effects of cancel culture, social media, and a growing American trend of erring on the side of outrage.
Celebrities, businesspeople, and politicians all proved that knowing what to say when the going gets tough can mean the difference between winning or losing in the court of public opinion. Success often relies upon considering ahead of time how your comments and actions may be interpreted by the public, with strategic thinkers rising to the top.
Here are a few of some of the highest profile PR successes and failures from 2022:
And the losers are…
“Ye,” formerly known as Kanye West — The controversial rapper went out of his way to cancel himself. Worldwide headlines followed a series of shocking antisemitic rants which quickly morphed into a massive global reputation meltdown owing to his bigoted language.
In just a few weeks’ time, the mercurial performer, fashion mogul, and producer imploded — and the self-immolation was entirely self-inflicted, losing $1.5 billion of his net worth when his business relationship with Adidas was terminated. In fact, Ye managed to destroy nearly every coveted business and sponsorship deal that he previously enjoyed. He tarnished his brand on a global scale.
Actress Amber Heard — The ex-wife of Hollywood A-lister Johnny Depp embarrassed herself mightily, losing in court and being forced to testify before a panel of jurors who ultimately found her not credible.
Hugely embarrassing details about the couple aired during Depp’s $50 million defamation trial against Heard, but Depp handled the situation with humor and aplomb. The jury found both celebrities guilty of defamation but awarded Depp more than seven times as much in total damages, or $15 million compared to Heard’s $2 million.
Billionaire Elon Musk — The serial entrepreneur and global business icon is now scrambling to find his replacement following a short-lived and ill-fated stint as CEO of Twitter. The eccentric Musk claimed “the bird is freed” when he acquired Twitter in October, but the billionaire’s erratic leadership of the company produced massive layoffs and a steady stream of negative press for the social media giant and Musk himself.
Actor Will Smith — His resounding Oscar’s slap was heard around the world. When the globally recognized actor walked onstage during the 94th Academy Awards and struck comedian Chris Rock across the face during Rock’s presentation for Best Documentary Feature, the blowback was staggering. Smith garnered little sympathy even though the slap was in response to Rock’s joke about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s bald head, which she had been shaving since 2021 due to alopecia. Smith was too slow to apologize and paid a heavy price.
Sam Bankman-Fried — His fall from crypto celebrity to pariah is epic. Pre-meltdown, “SBF” portrayed himself as the smartest person in the room. He enjoyed fawning press coverage that typically portrayed him as brilliant, innovative, altruistic and generous. Later, SBF tried recasting himself as an innocent ingenue, who had no idea that trouble was brewing within his cryptocurrency empire. It didn’t work.
SBF’s strategy of continuing to talk about what he knew or didn’t know will either give him a little breathing room or sink him even deeper. Right now, his fate is in the hands of the law.
And the winners are…
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky — His wartime leadership continues to be a master class in strategic communications. The charismatic leader repeatedly demonstrates the enormous impact of harnessing powerful messages and sharing them with the right tone and authority, and he did so again when he appeared before Congress clad in army fatigues to plead for his country’s future. Time’s Person of the Year did not disappoint.
“Your money is not charity,” Zelensky told a joint session of Congress on Dec. 21. “It is an investment in global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”
He continues to prove himself a master of words and deeds, despite the grave circumstances he is navigating as Ukraine’s wartime leader.
Harry & Meghan — The formerly royal lovebirds continue to benefit from carefully orchestrated strikes against England’s royal family.The power couple clearly understands the power of PR, and both have effectively shown how to take control of a narrative and steer it in a way that serves them best. They have been masterful in getting their side of the story out and pushing their perspective.
Their six-part Netflix special continues to draw sky-high ratings while Buckingham Palace remains mum as it braces for the release of Harry’s memoirs in 2023.
Johnny Depp — Captain Jack Sparrow landed on his feet despite the sordid courtroom face-off with ex-wife Amber Heard. Here’s why: The jury believed him; the public loved him, and so did social media users, including a base of 10 million TikTok followers. The megastar wielded his star power to great effect inside and outside the courtroom. Despite the embarrassing details of drugs and debauchery that surfaced during trial, Depp prevailed, saying he was “humbled” by the favorable verdict and thanking the jury for giving him his life back.
Actor/comedian Pete Davidson — His nine-month tryst with Kim Kardashian made the SNL comic even more famous. And whether the couple’s split was spurred by their 13-year age difference, career conflicts or cooled passions, Davidson emerged even more of a household name after the romance. It probably didn’t hurt that the funny man got the name “Kim” branded on his chest in memoriam of their love affair, making their link permanent. Davidson continues to enjoy the reputation of heartthrob, dating a growing litany of some of the most famous women in the world, including artists and models.
Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi — Arguably the greatest soccer player of all time, Messi led Argentina to World Cup glory, prevailing in penalty kicks following a final match for the ages. The revered global athlete warmed hearts worldwide with an Instagram post to his family after his big win: “So many times I dreamed it… I can’t believe it… Thank you so much to my family, to all who support me, and also to all who believed in us.”
Evan Nierman is CEO of crisis PR firm Red Banyan and author of “Crisis Averted: PR Strategies to Protect Your Reputation and the Bottom Line.”