Let Me Be Frank: Kevin Spacey’s Bizarre Crisis Management Strategy

By: Matt McGonegal

This is a heads-up that this post talks about sexual assault.  While I do not discuss the specifics of these high-profile cases, the last thing I want to do is cause someone distress so proceed accordingly.

Tonight at primetime, CBS News will be airing “The Gayle King Interview with R. Kelly.” This comes after months of public scrutiny following the release of the six-part Lifetime documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly,” as well as his dramatic outburst on “CBS This Morning” on Tuesday. In case you missed the segment, or do not plan on watching the full interview tonight, it looks like an unmitigated disaster in crisis management. But R. Kelly is far from the only celebrity whose poor response to allegations of sexual misconduct may have landed them in more trouble.

R. Kelly on “CBS This Morning,” Lazarus Baptiste/ CBS News

I’m a little surprised that Kevin Spacey didn’t come up in class discussion when we covered crisis communications, so I’m taking the opportunity to discuss it now since he is back in court this week. If you weren’t already aware, more than 30 people have come forward accusing Spacey of sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to attempted rape. And Spacey has reacted to these allegations with two of the most baffling crisis responses I’ve ever seen.

In October 2017, after actor Anthony Rapp accused Spacey of harassing him when he was 14 years old, Spacey released the following statement on Twitter:

Twitter, @KevinSpacey

There are many things wrong with this apology, and I’d like to address a few of the major ones:

  • He offered a false apology by apologizing for Rapp’s feelings, not his own actions,
  • He didn’t deny the allegations outright,
  • He “honestly doesn’t remember the encounter,” but knows he was drunk for it,
  • And I don’t feel like explaining everything that’s wrong with his excuse of “I choose now to live as a gay man,” maybe one of you can address this in the comment section.

Spacey received overwhelming criticism for this apology, and it was even condemned by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). GLAAD CEO Sarah Kate Ellis responded to his apology by writing, “Coming out stories should not be used to deflect from allegations of sexual assault. This is not a coming out story about Kevin Spacey, but a story of survivorship by Anthony Rapp and all those who bravely speak out against unwanted sexual advances.” [If you’d like to learn some tips about writing a sincere apology, check out this article]

But the awfulness of this apology pales in comparison to how awful the next video is. On Christmas Eve 2018, the same day he was indicted for felony sexual assault by Nantucket District Court, Spacey released this video from his personal YouTube account:

Kevin Spacey posted this video to his YouTube account on December 24, 2018.

In this home-produced video, Spacey assumes Frank Underwood’s southern drawl to deliver a three-minute monologue where it is unclear if he is professing his innocence or laying the groundwork for an insanity defense. This video blurs an uncomfortable line between fiction and reality as he alludes to his alleged sexual misconduct and subsequent fall from grace through double-entendre about his character being killed off on House of Cards.

When he released this video, I found it odd that a celebrity who typically stays out of the public light would respond to criminal, and potentially career-ending, allegations in such a cryptic way. But then it made sense to me: he is trying to appeal to the court of public opinion. Despite how creepy he comes across in this video response, at least this method let him control his message and use his abilities as an actor to his advantage. Which, if you think about the behaviors that abusers use to exert their power, seems very suspect.

In “Let Me Be Frank,” he wants us to view him as Frank Underwood, the beloved Netflix character, and not Kevin Spacey, the disgraced actor whose career has since careened off into Billionaire Boy’s Club. He used this character in an attempt to cast doubt over his guilt, and his talent to stir up goodwill before the case goes to trial. Now, it wasn’t a great idea for an actor best known for playing creepy and dishonest characters to use a notoriously creepy and dishonest character to make his case for not being a dishonest creep, but I digress.

Perhaps the most important lesson J 480 has taught me is that, before starting a PR campaign, you should always ask yourself, “what is the worst that can happen?” In the case of “Let Me Be Frank,” your answer is widespread confusion and condemnation by your peers. But as of now, the video has over 10 million views and a positive like-to-dislike ratio of nearly 4:1. So while much of the media’s discussion around the post has been negative, it is clear from the comments that Spacey’s message resonated with many people.

And I’ll admit it: before these accusations came to light, Kevin Spacey was among my favorite actors. From L.A. Confidential to The Usual Suspects to Se7en, he gave us a series of incredible performances that are still culturally relevant today. And if you watch “Let Me Be Frank,” his talents still shine through the absurdity of his homemade, iMovie-edited, Christmas-themed, sexual misconduct denial video. So now we face the questions that have dominated the entertainment industry in the #MeToo age. It’s the same question plaguing fans of R. Kelly, or Michael Jackson, or even XXXTentacion: can we–and should we–separate the artists from the art they create?

So, what do you think? How should Spacey have responded to these allegations? Does “Let Me Be Frank” raise legitimate questions about our capacity to rush to judgment, or does the video reek of an abuser using abusive tactics? Has social media complicated our justice system?

[If you’d like to read a better example of crisis communications, I’d recommend checking out Aziz Ansari’s response to sexual misconduct allegations]

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/matt-mcgonegal

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This Article Has 8 Comments
  1. Taylor Kissinger says:

    Hi Matt,

    This is a very informative post, and I think you handled such a sensitive subject quite well. I started watching the “Let Me Be Frank” video, and I honestly couldn’t finish it. To me, it seems like a last ditch attempt at winning some sort of support from his fans. It seems slimy that he’s trying to pull his popular, fictional persona into a real-life, incredibly serious situation. I’m curious what Spacey’s publicists or agent thought about the whole thing.

  2. Jillian Niedermeyer says:

    Really interesting post, Matt. I think “spin” is a huge reason that PR gets a bad rep. In Spacey’s statement, it seems he tried to spin the story as an opportunity for him to come out rather than apologize or really address the accusations at all. We, as PR professionals, need to work together to move away from “spinning” stories and focus on telling the truth, owning bad decisions and growing/learning from them. Additionally, I think it’s interesting that you bring up the idea of “can we separate the art from the artist” — this is something that I have definitely spent a lot of time thinking about and still don’t totally know if there is a “right” answer.

  3. Jared P. Myers says:

    Truly bizarre. I will admit, I have never watched House of Cards, but it doesn’t seem as though other better acquainted with the show thought much better of this video. Donning the mantle of your power (your position, or here, a fictional character) while under fire is a sad excuse, which we also unfortunately see in the Executive Branch right now (I believe the phrase used this week was “presidential harassment”).

    I think that overall, these types of allegations surrounding famous people are troubling, beyond the obvious. It is impossible to know what happened as an outsider, and yet one is almost compelled to choose. But I simply don’t care about Kevin Spacey, or most of the people accused of wrongdoing. I certainly do care about a climate of coercion and abuse that enables predators to prey on victims while wearing the sheep’s clothing of their fame/power.

    What is more, difficult, however, is when you do actually care about the accused and the implications for your personal life. For example, how do you blot out Michael Jackson’s music from our culture, where it is so firmly ingrained and endlessly influential? How do you teach yourself to unlike “Billie Jean” or any of the numerous songs made by innocent people who use a Michael Jackson riff or sample? Both The Daily podcast from the NYTimes and Today Explained, from Vox, covered this quite a bit over the past week, and I found it quite thought provoking. Michael Jackson is dead. If he did the deeds he is accused of, there is no justice. There is no trial. How do we cope with this lack of closure? Is there ever closure for a reprehensible act that can never be reversed?

    I think I made a comment earlier this semester about Louis C.K. He has been trying to make a comeback for a while now, and there have been a lot of protests surrounding his attempts. When these sorts of disgusting allegations come about (and in some cases, we see confessions/acknowledgements), we almost wish these people would just disappear. Are their crimes worthy of death? In most cases, no, so how does one just disappear?

    One thing I know for sure: these sorts of allegations are terrible and disgusting. It is insanely troubling that predators hide among us, preying on our goodwill, using their talents to shield and provide cover for their depravity. Sexual assault hurts so many people, with ripple effects throughout society. I hope that the volume of allegations and resulting court cases now flush out the garbage and that we can look back at this scourge as a problem we eradicated.

  4. Jared Myers says:

    Truly bizarre. I will admit, I have never watched House of Cards, but it doesn’t seem as though other better acquainted with the show thought much better of this video. Donning the mantle of your power (your position, or here, a fictional character) while under fire is a sad excuse, which we also unfortunately see in the Executive Branch right now (I believe the phrase used this week was “presidential harassment”).

    I think that overall, these types of allegations surrounding famous people are troubling, beyond the obvious. It is impossible to know what happened as an outsider, and yet one is almost compelled to choose. But I simply don’t care about Kevin Spacey, or most of the people accused of wrongdoing. I certainly do care about a climate of coercion and abuse that enables predators to prey on victims while wearing the sheep’s clothing of their fame/power.

    What is more, difficult, however, is when you do actually care about the accused and the implications for your personal life. For example, how do you blot out Michael Jackson’s music from our culture, where it is so firmly ingrained and endlessly influential? How do you teach yourself to unlike “Billie Jean” or any of the numerous songs made by innocent people who use a Michael Jackson riff or sample? Both The Daily podcast from the NYTimes and Today Explained, from Vox, covered this quite a bit over the past week, and I found it quite thought provoking. Michael Jackson is dead. If he did the deeds he is accused of, there is no justice. There is no trial. How do we cope with this lack of closure? Is there ever closure for a reprehensible act that can never be reversed?

  5. Tom Bridger says:

    ‘Let Me Be Frank’ was one of the strangest, and stupidest attempts at crisis management I have ever witnessed. Reading this made me think about the recent ‘Leaving Neverland’ doc that came out. I can’t seem to get the documentary off my mind and view MJ through a totally different light, even though I always believed he was guilty. It would have been incredibly interesting to see the crisis management response from MJ and his estate were he still alive. Would he have created another video addressing the allegations like he had done in the past? I also wonder if social media had been around when those kids were being abused, would the truth have surfaced earlier?

  6. Ari Rassouli says:

    Matt! The part where you address the faults with Kevin’s apology is so great! It shows that you really put thought into how he should have gone about handling the situation It is great that you took a deep dive into a topic that we did not talk about in class! This is a great example of a crisis that was not handled very well.

  7. Holly Walden says:

    Matt,

    I struggle with that question. Kevin Spacey was one of my favorite actors, his voice was like butter and his acting flawless. But after all of this I can’t look at him the same way. His art has been tainted by his actions. His amazing acting as creepy characters makes me think that maybe he is so good at acting creepy because he is creepy. I stand with the victims and I will not continue to support people that use their power to prey on people.

  8. Julianna Bourjeaurd says:

    Hi Matt,

    Prior to reading your piece I haven’t really followed along with the Kevin Spacey situation. I didn’t realize how much it has escalated with the number of people who have come forward and maybe I feel like the fact that he has been so private has come back to haunt him. Before all of these sexual assault allegations came out, people respected the fact that he did try so hard to stay out of the spotlight. However, now it seems almost creepy that he was so closed off to the public – did we really know him at all? How should this be used as an example for future celebrities? I suppose since their influence can have such an effect, being transparent and sharing more bits of your personal life might be better in terms of crisis prevention.

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