Jonathan Majors’ Team ‘Bungled’ His Abuse Scandal, a Crisis Management Expert Says

Complex talked to crisis management expert Erik Bernstein about handling a PR crisis, the Jonathan Majors situation, and how social media impacts his job.

Jonathan Majors Crisis Manager Scandal

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Jonathan Majors Crisis Manager Scandal

For the past month, Jonathan Majors has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. 

Majors was arrested in March and charged with several counts of assault and harassment in connection to a domestic dispute with a woman that took place in New York City. Following his arrest, his attorney Priya Chaudhry began releasing statements pledging her client’s innocence. 

Usually in cases like this for celebrities, their camp opts for silence or releases a carefully worded statement crafted by their publicity or crisis team. 

Complex reached out to Erik Bernstein, the president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management firm that provides solutions to salvage the reputation of both organizations and individuals during a publicity storm like this one. In Bernstein’s opinion, he believes the Majors situation was handled poorly by the actor’s team from the start.

“If there’s nothing you can say to help the situation, whether that’s due to ongoing legal concerns or because maybe there’s not a positive way to frame things, your best option is to try to avoid making more headlines than necessary,” Bernstein tells Complex, which he says is the opposite of what the actor’s attorney did. Chaudhry promised written statements from the victim and video evidence that she said would demonstrate the actor wasn’t at fault. 

He added: “Majors’ attorneys came out very strong early on, and when you say we expect charges to be dropped soon and they aren’t, that’s saying something to the public.”

It was also reported that he has parted ways with talent manager Entertainment 360 and PR firm The Lede Company since the incident. Last week, there were reports that more women had come forward with abuse allegations, but the Manhattan District Attorney’s office declined to comment. “Jonathan Majors is innocent and has not abused anyone,” Chaudhry told Variety following the reports. “We have provided irrefutable evidence to the District Attorney that the charges are false. We are confident that he will be fully exonerated.”

Another (less important) element of the conversation is whether or not the actor will be able to bounce back from this, with fans specifically speculating about his future within Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe as Kang the Conqueror. The studio, and the actor, have remained silent so far regarding his involvement in the upcoming projects. In contrast, Netflix found itself in the midst of controversy thanks to a resurfaced podcast clip of their show Beef’s star David Choe. In the 2014 clip, Choe tells a story about forcing a masseuse to perform sexual acts on him, which he later said he fabricated. Choe and Netflix have remained silent, but his costars and the show’s creator released a statement addressing the situation last week. 

Bernstein believes that as long as a star produces money for the studios, there can be a chance for redemption. “Particularly when it comes to entertainment and sports, there’s a road back,” the expert says. “If you can get things cleared up and if you can continue to either perform to a level where you’re bringing in money…it is possible.” 

While a victim’s well-being is of the utmost importance in these scenarios, observing how a crisis is handled from a publicity standpoint also shows us how society and the public react to people who have been accused of violence. Complex hopped on a call with Bernstein to discuss what his role is amid a PR crisis, the Jonathan Majors situation, and how social media has impacted the work he does.

Jonathan Majors arrest

UPDATE: Major’s lawyer confirmed that the woman in question has recanted her statement about being physically assaulted.

Is that something that you would usually recommend to someone, like an individual, to do in the middle of a scandal, to disappear for a little bit after an apology?

It depends. In this case, if Majors came out and apologized, he’s done. He’d be admitting domestic violence in public if he came out and apologized right now. I think it’s good for him to go silent. In many cases the best thing to do is go silent, and make the story as boring as you can. 

A lot of people write about crisis and reputation and they say, “Full transparency immediately.” That’s just not the reality. A lot of times the best thing to do is just make sure that there’s as little coverage as possible and that whatever coverage there is, is relatively uninteresting. Now, it’s very much relatively in this case because there’s no shortage of coverage, but he doesn’t want to feed it or fuel it.

Given your experience, how do you feel that his team has handled this case so far?

I think the attorney has bungled it from a PR perspective. [She] brought up the text messages without any framing, without any knowledge of how abuse victims act without bringing that into the picture at all. It says in the text messages that they had a fight and she was injured as a result. I would never have released that.

It’s the same with all of it. His attorney came out and talked a big game early and made a lot of promises, and you just can’t make promises like that unless you are extremely confident that you’ll be able to live up to them quickly.

Jonathan Majors lawyer drops alleged text messages to TMZ from the accuser to clear him.

Do you think that there is a world where people are able to bounce back after a situation like this? 

I do. I don’t know if it’s right that there is, but I absolutely do. We’ve already seen it in entertainment. We have the actor that played The Flash, Ezra Miller. He had his complete meltdown. He was very aggressive toward other people. He did a lot of concerning things, but he was bringing in a lot of money for the company, and I believe they’re about to have him back for another movie. 

I think particularly when it comes to entertainment and sports, there’s a road back. If you can get things cleared up and if you can continue to either perform to a level where you’re bringing in money, I think that that possibility is much more difficult since the #MeToo era. But it is possible.

Do you feel like regardless of the success that they may achieve, it still changed how people see him or their experience with him now?

I think that there’s going to be a baked-in audience who wants to bring this up every chance they can in connection to him now, and probably for a long time in the future.

Pivoting to the Beef Netflix situation. Netflix, the creators, and the actors were silent for a while, while David [Choe] has been having those clips from the podcast taken down from Twitter, which likely means he’s aware that it’s happening. Do you feel like him staying silent is what he needs to be doing right now, or is it kind of hurting the situation?

It’s always a fine line. I think in a case like that, obviously, there are legal concerns that he has to think about as well. PR-wise, it is really a matter of taking steps to analyze and measure how many people actually care about it. Is it a very vocal internet audience who’s maybe not your core audience or is it actually your whole core audience that’s upset, or do enough people who actually watch the show and support the show care about it? 

These are things that I would guess his team’s measuring, and I know Netflix is measuring right now, to gauge what they need to do. Sometimes if it’s just a vocal group that really isn’t the majority of the audience that you care about for any given situation, you can try to just roll past it.

Right. Because if you say something, as Netflix, then you’re bringing more attention to it to people who didn’t know.

Exactly. So it’s really a matter of a bit of gut feeling, but also measuring. We have all these great tools to measure social mentions, social sentiment, and all that now. But it’s really a matter of knowing, does everybody already know about this or will I be letting more people know about it by saying something?

Multiple alleged victims of Majors are reportedly cooperating with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in a case against the 'Creed III' actor.

We sort of touched on it already, but after this situation, is there still a future for Majors in Hollywood?

If he can continue to generate major money for studios. It’s going to depend on the particulars of what happened and how his team is able to reframe it. If it truly was some sort of mental issue as they allege and he was calling the police himself to help, that could work. If he outright assaulted somebody and then they lied about having evidence to the contrary, that’s going to be a steep hill to climb. But it’s entertainment. So I’m hesitant to say anyone has gone [away] forever if they’re going to generate billions of dollars for the studios.

Let’s say that you get a phone call from someone that says, “Hey, this story is about to come out. How do I handle it?” What are the usual steps that you tell them they should take next? 

The first few things are always: We want to know what audiences we care about in this situation, then we want to go out and gauge what’s the general interest in this type of situation and what is the specific level of interest in the situation we’re addressing. If we’re looking and we’re seeing there are a few articles out there, or there is some amount of 500–1,000 Twitter posts, it’s probably more than that, but just for an example. Then we try to break it down and see, are these people who are able to impact us or is this really something that the internet is upset about but people who sit on their couch and turn Netflix on in the evening may not even notice?

How has social media changed the way you all work?

Oh, well, it’s made everything much faster. Even when I started, I started firmly in the internet age, but almost 18 years ago now. You might have a couple of days before things moved across the country, or you might have something that actually just stayed local. Now that just really doesn’t exist. Anything that’s posted locally is going to be put online, which means it’s global and people can just share things. The rumor mill is certainly more powerful than it’s ever been. Oh, there’s no greater game of telephone than just putting something on Twitter and watching what happens to the story as it gets shared and re-shared.

That’s a big part: Stopping the rumor and innuendo because even in a bad situation, rumors are almost always worse. So that’s a big part of it. But it also lets us listen to a lot bigger audience than before. In the past, you’d have to do maybe surveys to directly ask people how they feel. Now, depending how public an issue is, a lot of times you can just look online.

So it both helps and hurts in a way.

It’s definitely very much a double-edged sword for us because we can find out what people think. We can get our messaging out more quickly. We don’t have to rely on mainstream media wanting to report something if we want to get something out and we just can’t get a bite on it. So it’s very powerful, but it makes things difficult and it makes… You have to be just that much faster in everything you do too.

Sometimes there are people facing allegations, and they take to Twitter or Instagram to address them right away. Is that something that you would tell them to back away from or does it depends on the client? 

It depends on the situation. If it’s a situation where we need to stop the rumor mill, clear up things that are being said and recenter people, like, here is the reality of what happened and it’s something that’s not awful, then sometimes it is helpful to just get out there and publish something. Particularly if they’re already active online.

If you’re actually accused of a crime or if the charges are, as they are in both of these cases, very serious with real implications, then you usually don’t want to go charging out there. Now, once in a while, it may make sense to put a message out anyway if you think that you’ve just reached the breaking point in terms of, “Everyone’s going to know regardless.” But I would guess specific to Majors’ case, with the ongoing litigation, there’s almost nothing he could say.

In scenarios like these, is there anything that you recommend that a person does for damage control or an image cleanup?

Well, if you can, if you get to that point, it’s always nice to show people that you fix the issue, if there’s that much public attention. It’s very common to recommend steps like donate to causes that help to educate and protect people against whatever you’ve done; going and visiting places to say you’ve learned about this that you understand, and expressing compassion and regret about that is always helpful. That can work.

It’s crucial to have the right team. 

Right. Yeah, it is. And it’s important to have people on your team in situations like this that will tell you, “No.” And unfortunately, I think when you get to a certain level of stardom, you don’t have a lot of those people around you.

For sure. And hiring the right lawyer, hiring the right team is really, I think, the key between surviving something like this and not, for sure.

No, it is. Exactly. And people who have the expertise, his attorney in this case may be great at doing the legal thing. She’s obviously not great at crisis management. So it is really important to have the right skills there. They are very complementary [skills.] I love working with a good attorney, don’t get me wrong. There’s overlap, but they are two different jobs.

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