Taylor Swift’s PR machine might be running out of gas.
The 23-year-old pop star, once described by The New Yorker as radiating “unjaded sincerity,” is facing a speed bump: The public is turning on her.
“I hope Taylor Swift’s publicist is working overtime to get the world to like her again,” Alisha Ramos, a brand consultant in New York, tweeted last month.
Ramos’s tweet seems almost prophetic. It came weeks before the April edition of Vanity Fair, in which Swift graces the cover. The story is a disaster for Swift.
“Instead of coming off sweet and humble like her public persona so desperately wants you to believe she actually is, the interview is aggressive and very defensive,” Aly Weisman wrote on Business Insider.
‘Losing her title as America’s sweetheart’
One part of the VF interview with Swift gained notoriety this week. The singer called out comediennes Tina Fey and Amy Poehler for not supporting women because they cracked a joke during the Golden Globe Awards in January about Swift’s many romantic relationships. Fey joked: “You know what Taylor Swift? You stay away from Michael J. Fox’s son.” To which Poehler added: “Or go for it. No! She needs some ‘me’ time to learn about herself.”
Swift wasn’t amused.
“You know, Katie Couric is one of my favorite people,” she told VF contributing editor Nancy Jo Sales. “Because she said to me she had heard a quote that she loved, that said, ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.’”
Fey’s response: Lighten up, kid.
“It was a joke, and it was a lighthearted joke,” she told Entertainment Tonight, “and it’s a shame that she didn’t take it in the crazy-aunt spirit in which it was intended.”
All joking aside, PR practitioner Anje Collins says Swift and her PR team had better be careful.
“I don’t think they realize that she is losing her title as America’s Sweetheart … by saying anything and not thinking about what she is saying,” said Collins, who is agency director at The Luxe Group and co-founder of Women in PR. “I would advise her to keep her opinion to herself. Trying to morph yourself into the good girl gone bad only works if your name is Rihanna.”
PR executive Dorothy Crenshaw echoed this notion of thinking before you speak.
“I’d tell her not to play victim this time and to respond with humor,” she said. Swift “can win points if she shows that she doesn’t take herself so seriously.”
If Swift was going to fire back at Fey and Poehler, she should have done it immediately—like the day after the awards show, Crenshaw said. She said responding a month later in a magazine interview “brought the story back just as everyone had forgotten it.”
Swift’s publicist Paula Erickson did not respond to PR Daily.
The remarks about Fey and Poehler elicited a chorus of boos from media outlets and bloggers. On Thursday, The Washington Post published a story telling Swift to “lighten up,” and explaining the true meaning of sexism—it ain’t a couple of female comedians cracking wise during an awards show, the Post’s Patricia Murphy wrote.
“Actual sexism, in the workplace for example, is being as good as a man at a job, but being passed over for a promotion because you are a woman,” Murphy explained. “Or being told directly, as I once was, that I would have been paid more for my work if I was ‘a high-powered man. Instead, we got you.’”
The blog Celebitchy put it more harshly (as you might expect given the blog’s title): “Amy and Tina have done more for women in the industry and in life than you will ever know.”
Steal a page from Kanye West?
Swift should know the power of the press—her renown is partly a result of a wild incident tailor-made for the media.
At the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Swift won for Best Female Video. When she accepted the award, the combustible rapper Kanye West leapt on stage, snatched the microphone from Swift, and held forth about the woman who he felt truly deserved the award, his pal, Beyoncé. Swift stood by doe-eyed and helpless. West was the Big Bad Wolf, Swift the Little Red Riding Hood clad in sparkles. The media ate it up, and overnight she was cast as America’s sweetheart.
Later, West apologized and tried his best to be contrite. It didn’t work. Ultimately, he buried himself in work—while continuing to unleash a diatribe here and there—releasing several hit records that were also critically acclaimed.
Strangely, Swift could learn something from West’s example, not from his screeds, but from his dedication to music. According to Matt Ragas, an assistant professor in the college of communication at DePaul University, the best PR play for Swift is to continue to release hit songs and strong performances. If she does so, her current problems will “fade away,” Ragas said.
“Part of PR is words and messaging, but a huge part of is also actions and behaviors,” he explained. “If she continues to put out hits and stays out of trouble, she’ll be fine.”
Believe it or not, organizations can learn from Swift—good PR is as much (if not more) about actions as it is words, Ragas said.
“Public opinion is shaped by words and images, but lots of time those words and images are grounded in some sort of reality,” he explained. “Whether it’s a pop star or a conglomerate, actions and policies are a big deal.”
That’s why PR people deserve a seat at the table with other top executives, said Ragas. And it’s why Swift should continue writing hit songs.