Katherine Heigl Puts Grassroots Crisis Management To Work In Hollywood Return

Should your organization be considering this powerful tactic for building both influence and audience?

Once you’ve been in this business long enough you can’t seem to avoid spotting crisis management lessons everywhere. While perusing the latest entertainment news and celeb gossip (give me a break on that one, it can’t be Fortune 500 and international intrigue all the time people), I was surprised to spot valuable insights in a Washington Post article about Katherine Heigl’s return to Hollywood. For those who haven’t been keeping up, here’s a quick summary of how Heigl’s reputation went from positive to “difficult”, as described by the Post:

Yes, she did brand her 2007 Judd Apatow comedy “Knocked Up” “a little sexist” and lamented that it painted women as uptight “shrews.” Yes, one year after winning an Emmy for her role as Izzie Stevens on “Grey’s Anatomy,” Heigl abstained from 2008 awards consideration because she “did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination.” And yes, she complained about working a 17-hour day on “Grey’s” in 2009, when her own schedule was possibly to blame. It was a spate of comments and actions that many decided collectively painted a picture of the worst kind of woman: a difficult one.

“At the time, I was just quickly told to shut the f— up. The more I said I was sorry, the more they wanted it,” she said. “The more terrified and scared I was of doing something wrong, the more I came across like I had really done something horribly wrong.”

This is a common trap many people facing crisis situations fall into, and it’s not hard to see why. There’s a fine line between over-sharing and not saying enough, being empathetic to the feelings of others without apologizing for things you didn’t do, defending yourself and coming across as protesting too much, and that line is constantly shifting depending on the expectations each audience holds.

Now, after spending years out of the limelight, Heigl is making a return, and she’s using classic grassroots crisis management tactics to pave the way. As the Post reports, “she now constantly replies to strangers’ comments on social media, whether it’s Google-able questions about her new VOD thriller “Fear of Rain” (out Feb. 12) or sweet photos posted of “Grey’s Anatomy”-themed birthday cakes or needlework, in which she is tagged alongside a slew of her former co-stars. Heigl is usually the sole celebrity respondent.”

While political debate has marred the word ‘grassroots’ in recent years, the reality is that this can be both a PR tactic and a positive, mutually beneficial strategy to use. In fact, some of the most effective crisis or reputation management tactics boil down to *gasp* actually being a good person.

With a direction in mind and enough effort it’s entirely possible to turn the momentum generated by creating memorable interactions and quality content into at least the opportunity to grab serious attention. For Heigl it clearly worked, landing first the Washington Post interview focusing on her past and personal struggles, quickly followed by a string of related coverage in outlets like E! News. From there interest in other stories related to the Heigl brand rose, and you started to see a barrage of coverage related to ‘Firefly Lane’, her latest project. After that it’s really off to the races, with articles on topics ranging from her hair color and stories of past on set shenanigans to serious discussions of how she discusses racism with her kids.

While I have to admit it’s a bit more difficult for those who aren’t already celebrities (and don’t have a PR team with access to major media outlets), it’s a good way to work on becoming a household name too. We’ve seen countless new stars created through social media and streaming platforms like YouTube or Twitch.tv, and if anything the movements of the past several years have demonstrated that those seeking to share a message with the world need look no further than the internet to do it. If your reputation isn’t quite where it should be, if you can’t get through to the person who can give you that shot, maybe grassroots efforts are somewhere to start.

Erik Bernstein
erik@bernsteincrisismanagement.com