Here’s a PR challenge old Walt Disney never had to deal with – the pure as Snow White 18-year old ingénue in his latest blockbuster movie showed up on the Internet this summer — stark naked. While Walt was rolling over in his grave, the company that bears his name flawlessly executed two key crisis communications tactics to preserve the franchise and move beyond the problem
If you have kids older than 7, you’ve probably heard about (and watched) High School Musical, numbers 1 and 2, Disney’s spectacularly successful and lucrative made for TV movies. August’s premiere of ‘High School Musical 2’ was the most watched program ever on basic cable. (Previous #1: 1993’s Gore vs. Perot NAFTA debate.) The HSM franchise is so successful that among girls ages 6 to 11 who were watching TV that night, an incredible 80%(!!) were watching HSM2. Another smash for Disney, as they geared up for - what else – High School Musical 3, and more wholesome singing, dancing and happy endings.
But then, a slight problem: a few days later Vanessa Anne Hudgens, who plays HSM’s brainy, sweet-as-pie female lead Gabriella Montez, was on the Internet – in a nude ‘self-portrait’. Not exactly in alignment with Gabriella’s image – or Disney’s enduring 80 year-old brand.
Disney quickly did two very smart things. After deciding to keep Hudgens as Gabriella going forward they did Smart Thing #1 – they quickly announced it, which swiftly and emphatically stopped speculation about the young star’s HSM future. By filling the vacuum, the company effectively cut off media conversation about Gabriella’s future as a student at East Side High. After that, there was very little to talk about.
Then, Smart Thing #2 – with nothing else that would be helpful to talk about, Disney just stopped talking about it. This is a technique that I call “Denying fuel to the fire.”
Hudgens, for her part, also doused the fire with a matter-of-fact but genuine sounding Disneyesque apology to “my fans, whose support and trust means the world to me” for the “private” photos…“lapse in judgment”…”embarrassed”…”regret”, etc.
Now the caveat: Smart Thing #2 - denying fuel to the fire - only works when no additional newsworthy information will be exposed, and the only thing left to do is speculate, analyze, etc. In a dynamic situation, with changing facts and circumstances, there is no choice but to execute Smart Thing #1 over and over again: fill the information vacuum immediately, and define the issue on your own terms. But in the case of Gabriella Montez, with nothing left to say, the story was over.
Rest easy, Walt.