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As We See It

‘Swami of Spin’ Jason Rose on the finer points of scandal

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Anthony Weiner’s run for NYC mayor got us thinking about how a public figure bounces back from very public scandal these days.
Photo: Richard Drew / AP

Mayor Weiner. That’s the goal of the disgraced former congressman, and not in some burg where folks don’t know about Twitter. Anthony Weiner wants to be mayor of New York City. His campaign launched last week amid fresh jabs that someone who tweets photos of his naughty bits to women who are not his wife and then lies about it has no chance in hell.

And yet, disgraced former Gov. Mark Sanford, who cheated on his wife and lied about it, just won back his congressional seat. And what about Charlie Sheen, who should have been committed but parlayed his crazy into a new TV series and countless new fans? Why shouldn’t a reformed penis-tweeter presume he deserves a comeback, too?

We asked “Swami of Spin” Jason Rose of Rose + Moser + Allyn Public & Online Relations. His Arizona firm tackled the PR nightmare known as Samy and Amy Bouzaglo, the restaurant couple made infamous by Kitchen Nightmares and the ongoing social-media sh*tstorm. Rose explains that while unforeseen circumstances and strategic differences led him to drop the case, he took it on because it was so off the rails. “Everyone deserves to tell their side of the story,” he says.

That right is the essence of crisis communications, aka damage control. It’s vital today, as blowback for any alleged sin is immediate and fierce. Rose says mitigating scandal starts with pinpointing the goal, whether it’s about money, legal considerations or reputation. Vegas resident José Canseco’s recent Twitter antics were an attempt to, as Rose says, “scream from the rooftops” that Metro’s investigation of alleged sexual assault is unfounded. It can be beneficial to get in front of the headlines, but fast moves also mean less time to think.

“Logic and reason and trust can often go by the wayside because you try to be your own PR person, just like people try to be their own lawyer,” Rose says. Even if you consult a professional, all he can do is suggest a plan. There is no ironclad formula. “It’s in vogue that in a crisis you should always say, ‘I’m sorry,’” Rose says, adding that apologies better be sincere. “But there’s other times when it’s okay, circumstances understood, to say, ‘Bullsh*t,’ and to push back hard, creatively, on the facts.”

We asked the Swami to share details about the spin business, some of his high-profile cases and others in the news. Appropriately, he was composed and candid.

In the wake of scandal, it seems there are right moves and very wrong moves. What should the first step be? It’s a good question, and I don’t think it’s appreciated by the public who always—myself included—when they see something going on think, “Well I would handle it different.” There’s a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking that goes on. But the first thing that has to happen is: What’s the goal? And every case is different.

You represent some athletes. José Canseco is not among them, but he could probably use your services right now. His tweets immediately following a visit from the police revealed some sensitive information about the alleged victim and were promptly deleted—but not before the media went bonkers. Is it ever a good idea to try to preempt a firestorm you know is coming? The José Canseco situation is not trying to extend a brand; it’s trying to defend your name. … In this case, he certainly erred in perhaps disclosing information that he shouldn’t have, but he erred on the side of going too far in saying, “Nonsense.” Because that smear on the reputation, you have to scream from the rooftops that this wasn’t the case. But again it goes back to not knowing the circumstances. Did he have a relationship with this woman? Was there any prior history with it? What legal exposure does he have? What’s the lawyer advising? Because PR people don’t have attorney-client privilege like the lawyer, and so PR people aren’t always privy to all of the information, which complicates the situation.

I never thought about how those influences might not mesh. There’s always a tension between lawyers and PR people. PR people want to talk and lawyers never want to talk. And the PR people are always saying, “Look, that’s great that you get out of whatever circumstance that you’re facing, but your name is so besmirched in the process, what’s the point of prevailing?”

Public figures are used to having their names besmirched. Samy and Amy, on the other hand, were clearly unprepared for the dark side of the spotlight. The thing that’s fascinating in these cases is, a lot of times it’s involving people that have never endured a lot of criticism or ridicule before. And I don’t care who you are, how tough or sophisticated you think you are, that’s a very difficult process to go through.

True, but the Bouzaglos didn’t help themselves by taking to social media in such an emotional state. According to you, there were circumstances and strategic differences that led you to step away from the case. But even now, what would you like to see happen as this couple tries to bounce back? At the end of the day, the point that we made was, the marketplace is going to decide after each side tells its story. And I was hopeful. We were gonna have a press conference … which I think would have been memorable, with Samy and Amy. They have a very interesting side of the story to tell, and it’ll be interesting to see if they decide to tell it moving forward. … Let’s say that 80 percent of the people out there, having heard about this, would make a decision to never go to the restaurant because they don’t like what happened on the show. But that 20 percent that is intrigued and fascinated is so infinitely greater than what this restaurant was appealing to before. That is an extraordinary business opportunity, and it’s up to them to decide if they’re gonna seize it, how they’re gonna seize it, or if they can seize it in light of everything that’s going on.

Did you take some heat just for representing them? In most any high-profile issue someone’s not happy with the extent of your advocacy, whether it’s a candidate for governor or you’re taking on a tough case like this last one with Amy’s Baking Co. Was the criticism of us for taking it on more pronounced in this case? It was. But I’m a big boy; I’ve been through it before. Some of it’s funny. Some of it’s over the top.

The public is hungry for apologies in these kinds of situations, yet we’re so reluctant to accept them. If there’s something to apologize for, be sincere. But in being sincere, in this case, turning Amy into Laura Ingalls was not, in our opinion, the right way to go. She’s a passionate, strong-willed, interesting individual. That’s who she is, and ultimately you can’t try to be someone who you’re not. ... That’s why we wanted to do the press conference, because I think people would have understood her side of the story a bit more. Some people still wouldn’t have liked her afterwards, but you gotta be true to yourself, too.

No one understands that better than Charlie Sheen. He had a reputation as a hard-charging, partying guy, and then he went crazy, and then he went crazier. And by not saying, “Hey, I apologize,” and just keep going nuts, he changed his brand and expanded his brand in an interesting way. And his social-media reach now is insane. It’s completely insane. … I thought it was fascinating. It was an exception to the rule.

The rule being that when scandal strikes, rash decisions and social media aren’t a good mix. In this day and age you have to move so fast with social media. And by having to move so fast you may not have all of the information at your disposal. So you have to make very tough decisions: Do we wait, and then a bad impression gets further imprinted? Or, do we know that we don’t have all the information but we’ve gotta take chances to make up some ground? … You have millions of people who are not logical, who are immediately commenting and forming an opinion on something. So you don’t have six hours to reason with a reporter from CBS News. … That was one portal, one person; you throw down your best and you can try to mitigate the situation. Now, it’s the mob.

You didn’t specialize in crisis communications until the early 2000s, when a friend got swept into a scandal involving charges of illegal arms dealing. That friend was billionaire Pierre Falcone. You called his wife Sonia to let her know you gave a personal comment to the Arizona Republic, and she asked you to craft an official statement for the family on the spot. It ended up involving crisis work in South America, because she was Miss Bolivia, in Europe because of the scandal and then in the United States, and then there were some political overlays. Michael Isikoff was calling, and I had to learn about an Angolan civil war and arms dealing and all kinds of stuff. And so I jumped into it with some professional risk but with some loyalty because I had known them. And it was a very turbulent issue that lasted many years. He was eventually exonerated in France after a 10-year legal battle, but kind of having the courage, for lack of a better term, to take on a very difficult case like that I think caught people’s attention, and that kind of developed our reputation in the space.

Is it a niche in the PR industry? There’s a lot of people that will hold out that moniker, crisis communications, in their PR firm that shouldn’t. … It’s high stakes; it’s immediate; reputations are on the line; you gotta move fast. And it is a niche in PR, and PR people are not the fastest-moving people in show business, by and large. The same person that’s trying to convince you to buy movie tickets at the theater is just not the person when the onslaught’s coming and people need a strong defender.

Even with the added pressures and pitfalls of social media, it seems that we forgive certain missteps today that used to bring people down permanently. To some extent it’s reflective of the changing politics in America. You know, once upon a time a New Jersey governor had a gay affair and resigned from office. Well, views on gay marriage are rapidly evolving. Before, using any type of drugs was fatal to a politician. Now, I mean, smoking pot is not a problem at all, even utilizing cocaine as the president did; you’re still elected president of the United States. As DUI laws have gotten tougher more people get it, and so I think the issue of getting a DUI is almost a non-issue because it has impacted so many people that it just doesn’t have the potency.

In politics, though, even if the public forgives something like smoking pot, people still expect and demand contrition. You go on an apology tour; you give it some time; you continue to serve; people forget, and you grind it out with constituent service. That’s the playbook, whether you get a DUI or you’re caught with hookers or you’re exposing yourself on Twitter.

Anthony Weiner did apologize, but he’s taking major abuse for his mayoral campaign. If you were representing him, what strategy might you suggest? To me, without being overly familiar with New York politics, his opportunity but also his challenge is to be the rage-against-the-machine candidate: “No one says that we can do this; we’re gonna defy the odds; we’re gonna overcome the entrenched interests at city hall.” He was the ultimate insider before, which is gonna make it challenging to become the ultimate outsider, but, you know: “I’ve been through my own troubles, therefore I can fix the troubles in New York City.” ... I don’t know if people are happy with the way the city is right now, but if they’re in the mood for change that would be his opportunity.

Some people view “spin,” that ability to flip or reframe a story, as disingenuous. Given your nickname, how do you respond to that? If spin is lie, spin will be revealed as lie, and it will be ineffective and rejected. … But when you’re just communicating their side of the story, whether it’s spin or not, it’s a presumed right, just as it is for a lawyer to make the case on behalf of somebody.

Does the Swami have his own playbook? You can’t pull it off the shelf. Are there lessons learned and experiences you can apply? Of course there are. But every situation is different, and someone who just pulls things off the shelf goes, “Let’s say we’re sorry; it’ll go away; we’ll work some rosary beads and pow, this thing’s gone in two days.” Sometimes it works out that way. But it’s distinct to every situation. It has to be.

Famous Vegas comebacks*

    • Mike Tyson

      His rap sheet is, for lack of a better word, girthy. Consequences ranged from prison time to losing his boxing license. Then came bankruptcy (and face tat). The Hangover started an upswing. His tell-all show hit Vegas and Broadway. And he founded a charity for kids from broken homes.

    • Paris Hilton

      Her lows include a DUI and cocaine bust, a failed TV venture, Wynn banishment and scary crotch shots on TMZ. But lately she’s danced onstage with Deadmau5, appeared in a Sofia Coppola film and signed to release a new album with Cash Money Records. Dare we say, that’s hot.

    • Oscar Goodman

      He's the asterisk, because he never really fell from grace—even in daring to tell grade schoolers how much he loves gin and then daring not to be sorry about it. He’d rather be honest than win every heart. Because of that, he pretty much did.

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