Recently, the entertainment world has been taken by storm as Johnny Depp countered his ex-wife Amber Heard with a defamation suit, demanding $50 million in damages. The Pirates of the Caribbean star is easily one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood and one of the most sought-after actors for many decades, that until his very public divorce from Heard, and her subsequent allegations of sexual assault that subsequently ground him to a halt.
Since the divorce in 2016 till date, Depp hasn’t been flying as high as he used to in Hollywood, and he has lost a fortune in potential earnings, at least that is what he alleges.
However, since he launched his recent defamation suit, things seem to be turning around somewhat surprisingly, with the social media hashtag #Johnnydeppisinnocent receiving over 1.4 billion views.
So what has changed? Besides the uncommon media attention that this trial has garnered, Johnny Depp seems to have also benefited from “a premium display of the finest of PR,” according to Justin Ali, the founder of CherryRed PR, an Australian-based PR agency that deals exclusively with international celebrities and Influencers.
Ali has followed the events closely and has had his share of managing very public PR affairs since starting CherryRed. His star-studded client list includes big organizations, celebrities, and influencers like Moke International, Exodus, Daniel Mac, Danni Harwood & Anna Shumate.
In his professional opinion, Ali suggests that, “This trial has been coming for a long time, Depp seems very well prepared from a PR perspective and of course it would be a great plus for his campaign if his version is the true version of things.” Ali further explains that “with the culture of social media trials and public outrage at the drop of a hat, PR has never been as important as it is today.”
Ali’s assertions seem to be accurate when you consider that Heard recently sacked her PR reps, Precision Strategies, mid-trial and secured the services of Veteran PR expert David Shane of Shane communications. This move came at a critical time, just before Heard entered the witness box, which is a move that Ali considered, “great, and a realization that this case would be fought and won in the PR courts, just as much as in the court of law.”
Public relations reps are usually silent and seemingly un-influential from the outside looking in, but if this case has taught us anything, it is that PR power is more far-reaching than we thought.
Building out the optics
Depp’s struggles since the divorce in 2016 are not just because of the allegations leveled at him; it is also because these allegations were believed. Our cultural zeitgeist and the increased social intelligence around gender-based crime and harassment has improved leading to immediate and positive understanding toward victims accusations. There was not much pushback from Depp’s camp in 2016, but in 2022, they seem to have returned to heavily counter the allegations.
“Like with a lawyer, it always helps if your client is on the side of truth. It feeds your passion and ingenuity. That’s certainly what I would prefer.” Ali explains, “However, at the end of the day, what a great PR agency does is to try to shape perception. Perception of truth is more powerful than the truth itself, and with the variety of opinions and backgrounds in the public square, it is almost certain that you would find a base willing to give your client a chance to exist and thrive.”
Some people have “controversy value” and make their money off of being controversial and saying whatever they want. However, as many celebrities are learning in the heat of the cancel culture trend, words can come back to haunt you.
There is a level of influence and notoriety that an influencer or celebrity gets to that cannot be adequately managed without the help of a seasoned PR agency.
The tale of a crisis
Allegations of sexual abuse and counter-allegations of physical abuse certainly make for a heavily covered court trial. Still, if you look a bit closer, you would see the unfolding PR trial in the Depp and Heard case. Depp is seemingly winning the latter, if social media is anything to go by.
Ali explains how and why the perception of Depp has now shifted; “There is an element to Johnny’s testimonies that are tied to his personality, but for the most part, a trained PR eye would see more of preparation than temperament; the measured words, the slow responses and the stoic adherence to script. It is an interesting phenomenon to watch how Johnny has almost totally rebuilt his reputation from what it was roughly 4 years ago to what the general public perceive today. If that is not a miracle, I honestly don’t know what is.”
Powerful PR is often seen more during a crisis and in its ability to take advantage of that crisis. The difference between adequately doing that and crashing and burning is often seen in timing. Significantly, Depp brought the suit six years after the earlier allegations had died down, memories had become hazy, and soon after, the world had gone through a pandemic.
Whatever the strategy is, a great PR agency’s goal is to build, rebuild or maintain their client’s reputation at all costs, before and during a crisis. In the end, reputation can matter more than reality.
The Depp and Heard trial is not so much about the $50 million as it is about trying to give Depp a new lease of life on his career. A petition has even been started to reinstate the actor in the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise post learning of Heard defecating in the actor’s bed. Barring any horrendously implicating evidence, Depp’s reputation would likely be stronger.
“Influence begets reputation, reputation invites controversy, controversy attracts crisis and crisis demands spot on PR.” Ali concluded in regards to the case.
Whether we would see a Pirates of the Caribbean 6 starring Johnny Depp may be on trial before the courts, but it may be more in the hands of his PR reps.