A notable amount of the commentary surrounding DaBaby’s homophobic comments at Rolling Loud Miami centered on publicists. DaBaby’s initial refusal to apologize had many people tweeting and sharing memes about how stressed his publicists must have been in those chaotic moments.
The hoopla opened a larger conversation about how PR people handle a job that, with certain clients, can often feel like putting out fires, especially in the fast-paced world of social media during a time of so-called “cancel culture.”
Sometimes the process starts with a simple conversation. Erin Ryan, senior publicity manager at New York-based PR agency Audible Treats notes a recent occasion where she had a call with an artist “explaining why something they said was not what they meant and could be twisted,” and the artist receptively replied, “‘Oh, I had no idea.’” She says, “Sometimes you get that, and sometimes you don’t.”
In most instances of trying to talk an artist down off a controversial comment, Ryan says it’s a matter of letting artists cool down and get in a “good headspace” where they don’t feel attacked for their misdeed. But Michelle McDevitt, president of Audible Treats, notes that there have been rare occasions where “we’ve been seen as mistrustful, or they’re not open to fruitful dialogue and are unwilling to change. They’ll label us as not a good fit, and then we’ve separated.”
The publicists we spoke with feel it isn’t their place to police a client, but merely offer suggestions and a sounding board.
“I think our job is to advise; it’s not to censor people,” says Dana Meyerson, a partner at Biz 3 Publicity who has been doing PR for over 18 years. McDevitt adds, “We’re not here to necessarily ‘teach them’ about anything that they ‘should know’ by now. We’re here to help them and be a resource if they are curious and have questions about what is controversial and what is not. What I’m trying to say is, it’s not us teaching them. It’s also them teaching us about why they believe in what they do.”
Both agree that it’s a two-way relationship. McDevitt recalls an occasion last year when certain artists told her why they were apathetic about masks and mandates.
“A lot of them told me, ‘Michelle, I can be shot any day and die in these streets. It’s been like that for years. Do you think that I’m afraid of a virus that I may or may not catch? And if I do, it may or may not kill me?’” she recalls. “That is such a grey threat, as opposed to getting killed by a bullet. That’s a real threat, possibly catching viruses and possibly dying from it is not acute—an acute threat dying in the streets. And honestly, I can’t argue with that. That’s so real and visceral. I did not feel comfortable saying, ‘Well, that doesn’t matter. Put on a mask and stay your ass indoors.’ I don’t have a place to stand on. That’s a very real threat, and I have not lived that life and do not know what that feels like. So I respect their ways, and I respect their decisions. That’s not a popular position, but it’s fucking real.”