We are an extremely forgiving people. Especially when it comes to our favorite stars. Race your car at high speeds through the neighborhood, get a DUI, pee in a mop bucket, throw eggs at your neighbor’s house, insult a former president, or share a stripper’s… “assets” with a friend, and there are legions of devoted followers out there willing to to give you another chance.
When a second video emerged this week of Justin Bieber using racist language and repeatedly dropping the n-word, his celebrity friends lined up to express their support for the singer. Even former N.W.A member Ice Cube seemed willing to forgive and forget. Still, there are others who are not so quick to forgive, like Lupe Fiasco, who compared Justin Bieber’s remarks to those of Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
“It’s an absurd thing — you get somebody who we ‘like’ who says it, and says it even more ‘racist-ier’ and we don’t bat an eyelash at it,” Lupe Fiasco said.
Will America be quick to forgive Justin Bieber, and can he and his image rebound from not one but two damning videos?
“This is kind of different from his other mistakes,” said Risa Heller, a public relations and crisis communications expert who’s worked with disgraced former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner and former Elmo puppeteer and voice actor Kevin Clash.
“Drunk driving or reckless behavior… a lot of young celebrities make a lot of public mistakes and people say, ‘He’s reckless and he’s a kid,’” she said. “They view that as impulsive, childish behavior that comes with the territory. But when you get to something as hurtful as the language used in those two videos, it changes the tone and tenor of how people are thinking of you.”
Heller said it might cause some people to wonder about whether the racist jokes — reportedly made when Bieber, now 20, was 14 and 15 — are something that could cause them to question their fandom. Or worse, for Bieber’s young audience, maybe cause parents to say, “Is this someone I’m willing to spend money on for my daughter/son?”
Karen J. Kessler, a founding partner at Evergreen Partners, which has performed reputation management services with athletes and politicians (they’re currently working with clients tied to the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal), explained that performers can often recover more quickly than business executives or politicians.
“Performers are like athletes in that they have a much greater ability to recover than a business executive, politician, or any other person with a public profile,” Kessler said. “Because one more hit song and one more touchdown makes a lot of people willing to accept an awful lot. Unfortunately in this society, people who have those kinds of gifts are given more passes than people who have different kinds of skill sets.”
Kessler laid out the blueprint that disgraced performers tend to follow: “People tend to do one of two things. They either sort of shut up and go back to what they did that got them some sort of fame in the first place, spend time in the studio and come up with a new album and then come back and say, ‘This comes from the pain that I went through and I learned a lot from that, and that’s why I was able to write these songs that come from my heart.’ Or the second option is someone tells them they should do community service, and then they spend their time working in some African-American charity thinking that proves that he’s incredibly open minded.”
While Bieber was quick to apologize, and did so several times, the fact that the leaked clips were released so soon after the reviled racist remarks from Clippers owner Donald Sterling might hurt Justin even more according to Damon Williams, a branding expert and Vice President of programming for Music Choice, which beams 56 genre-based channels of music into more than 57 million U.S. households a month.
“The timing is horrible … but it’s actually worse that he was 14 years old in that footage than if he had done it today,” said Williams. “People had that image of an innocent Justin Bieber in their minds when he was that age and now they understand that he’s a young man who is evolving and trying to figure out who he is, being rebellious, trying out different things, different cultures. But seeing him at that age, when 13-year-old fans were screaming at him, acting that way, probably rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.”
Both agreed that fans are forgiving and that the media tends to move on quickly in this era of second-to-second headlines and rapid-fire social media memes, and they said Bieber and his camp did the right thing by apologizing quickly and, by all appearances sincerely, for the tapes.
“Life is long and the news cycle is short and if you can get through mistakes and show actual, genuine contrition that’s the key to winning fans back,” said Heller. “If this was the first thing he ever did he might not be able to come back. But because it’s all these years later it becomes built in to the narrative of him as an impulsive, impetuous person.”
Heller said she thought the apologies were handled well, though she thought the Instagramming of Bible and devotional verses was a bit “weird” and that it didn’t necessarily express the gravity of the offense. “There’s no specific playbook, but it’s [important to show] that you are getting the resources in place if you don’t understand that the language was inappropriate and that you’re teaching yourself the right thing so that you understand why what you did was so wrong.”
She said it seems like Bieber and his camp handled the internal politics of the apology properly in their own universe of friends and influencers, but there’s the other part: making sure the public understands how you’re bettering yourself.
If they had called her, Heller said she’d tell them it’s not necessarily about doing an apology tour and sitting down with the appropriate leaders, but making sure you express why you won’t make this horrible mistake again and that you understand the gravity of the situation.
In some ways, Bieber is fortunate he doesn’t have a new album or movie to publicize, because he would likely be overwhelmed with questions about the scandal. But, Williams said, programmers like him still have to make a decision about whether their audience is so upset that they don’t want to hear Justin’s songs right now. “When you have product in the market it’s almost more pressure on companies like Music Choice because we’re in a position to present your music to the world,” he said.
“But in some ways Justin is always prime time, always on and it seems like he’s got good, smart people around him and people feel like he’s the kind of guy who will learn from this,” he said. In the end, both agreed, people will move on and the music will speak for itself.
“My advice to them would be to stay in the public eye, don’t hide from it,” Williams said. “Go out, be yourself and be humble. When people ask you about it, and they will, you have to have an appropriate response. As his brand evolves this won’t be the last incident, and they might not be as bad, but he’s still 20 and he’ll make some more mistakes.”
So, can Bieber fully recover? Kessler put it this way: “‘Recover’ is probably not the right phrase. The answer is he can pivot, he can build back. But certainly sell records and make money again? Absolutely.”
This article contains additional reporting by Althea Legaspi