Lessons learned: Crisis PR turned Miley Cyrus into a good girl

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Whenever the issue of crisis public relations comes up, the name Tylenol immediately comes to mind. In 1982, seven Tylenol users in the Chicago area died after taking Tylenol capsules that had been laced with potassium cyanide. Within a week of the first death, Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) -- Tylenol's manufacturer -- had distributed warnings to hospitals and distributors, halted production, stopped advertising, recalled all Tylenol products, and offered to exchange all Tylenol capsules in distribution. They subsequently phased out capsules and massively improved the seals on their packages.

Although the tampering crisis could have spelled the end of Tylenol, the company's quick reaction, willingness to sacrifice $100 million worth of products, and subsequent packaging advances enabled it to emerge as the safest, most respected over-the-counter drug. Within a few years, the company had turned a crisis into a brand-defining triumph and was the best-selling analgesic on the market.

As increasing numbers of celebrities effectively make the transition from individuals into brands, it's worth asking what lessons the Tylenol crisis has to offer. A positive example could be Miley Cyrus, whose controversial 2008 Annie Leibovitz photo session briefly threatened her brand. As Disney (DIS), producer of her Hannah Montana program argued, "For Miley Cyrus to be a 'good girl' is now a business decision for her. Parents have invested in her a godliness. If she violates that trust, she won't get it back." Shortly after the publication of the photos, Cyrus asked her fans for forgiveness, stating "Seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed. I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologize to my fans who I care so deeply about." The general public, chalking up the photos as the product of Cyrus' immaturity and Annie Leibovitz's immorality, quickly let the story die.

On the other hand, as former Disney protegees Jodi Foster and Sean Astin could attest, the transition from childhood fame to adult relevance is difficult to negotiate and Cyrus undoubtedly has a tough road ahead of her. The Leibovitz tempest and Cyrus' subsequent apologies enabled the young star to subtly reposition herself as a maturing young woman. Arguably, this set the stage for her deal with Wal-Mart, which is producing the Miley Cyrus/Max Azria line, a clothing collection that is aimed at women in their late teens and twenties.

In the case of Jon and Kate Gosselin, their recent marital problems could signal the end of their lucrative partnership; alternately, these sad events could also push it into overdrive. The irony is that the Gosselin's meltdown has simultaneously endangered their brand and driven its value to previously unimaginable levels. If they can use the crisis to rebrand, they could, conceivably, emerge with more power and a stronger market share.

Sharlyn Lauby, of International Talent Management, argues that the ultimate redemption of the Gosselin brand could lie in Jon and Kate's ability to model an amicable, mature separation: "If they can put the petty sniping aside and conduct an amicable separation in front of the whole world, they can become role models for couples and parents faced with with the same real-life issues." Given that dealing with real-world stress is a key aspect of the Gosselin brand, this seems like a reasonable -- and potentially lucrative -- direction for them to take the brand.

Sometimes attempts at crisis rebranding are painfully inept. Chris Brown, who recently pleaded guilty to charges that he assaulted his then-girlfriend, Rihanna, subsequently appeared in public with a $300,000 jewel-encrusted necklace that said "Oops!" While this message may have resonated with a small portion of the adolescent male population, it was incredibly offensive to young women, arguably Brown's key demographic. Rather than repair the damage wreaked by original offense, Brown expanded the problem with his apparently disrespectful (and inadequately chastened) pose.

Scandal has been a fundamental part of celebrity branding ever since the days of Fatty Arbuckle's rape trial. However, as the line between personal life and professional sales promotion becomes thinner and thinner, celebrity foibles transform from the failure of an individual to the death of an industry. As such, the lessons of industry may hold the secret to the longevity of celebrity brands.


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