Can Will Smith Recover From The Slap? Publicists Weigh In.

Will Smith stepped up on stage at the 94th Academy Awards on March 27 and smacked Chris Rock before returning to his seat and yelling, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!” It wasn’t until he said it again that everyone realized it wasn’t a skit.

It was a completely unexpected turn of events for the movie actor, who has had a practically spotless 30-year career and has always kept his personal life private. Everything changed, however, when Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, debuted her Facebook chat show The Red Table Talk, in which she addresses profoundly intimate things, including her and Will’s marital problems. When musician August Alsina announced that he had been in a relationship with Pinkett Smith in 2020, the married pair addressed it on the show by having a chat about it. Will became a meme after Pinkett Smith coined the term “entanglement,” which has since become part of the pop cultural vernacular. All of this, combined with a candid memoir titled Will, which he published in 2021, left Smith feeling more vulnerable, human, and exposed than ever before. And in front of 16.6 million viewers, Chris Rock’s off-color remark regarding Pinkett Smith’s hairdo was enough to break the King Richard Oscar winner.

Dreena Whitfield, the founder and CEO of WhitPR, a public relations firm whose clients include Black Lives Matter, Eboni K. Williams, and The Recording Academy, claims his recovery for the incident began with the speech he gave after winning the Best Actor Oscar that night for King Richard. The speech was panned because it was a clumsy attempt to link his role as Venus and Serena Williams’ father to defending his wife at the awards show. He didn’t mention Rock, but he did apologize to the Academy and expressed his hope that they would invite him back. Whitfield believes Smith’s publicist Meredith O. Sullivan did the best she could given the circumstances, but there was an opportunity to focus on the show’s most notable aspects, such as Regina Hall, Wanda Sykes, and Amy Schumer hosting, producer Will Packer hiring an all-Black production team, and Ariana DeBose becoming the first openly queer, Afro-Latina to win an Oscar.

“If there had been clearer minds,” Whitfield adds, “mentioning the momentous events that were eclipsed would have strengthened his realization of how his actions darkened the light on so many others’ night.”

Patientce Foster has already been down this path. She was part of the team that accelerated Cardi B’s rise from a Love & Hip Hop star to a household superstar. Foster also oversaw the “Up” rapper’s public outbursts following her altercation with Nicki Minaj at the Harper’s Bazaar Icons Fashion Week party in September 2018. Many expected the Grammy winner to be barred from the event after hurling a shoe at the rapper, yet she was featured on the cover of the magazine’s March 2019 issue, just five months after the brawl. Foster believes Smith’s publicist had a responsibility and obligation to provide him with a few bullet points and a fast summary of what to say prior to his Oscars speech after the moment. “I could tell he was starting to ramble because he was saying some of the same things again and over,” she explained. “Will Smith is a captivating person who is naturally gifted with words and speaking. He already has a reputation as a stand-up comedian, so she won’t have to do any coaching. However, you have that conversation with your client to help them refocus, reset, and refresh so that you may still capitalize, or find an advantage in the moment.”

Smith apologized through Instagram text post the day after the incident, a kind of apology that fans loathe but celebrities frequently use when it’s time to demonstrate repentance. “Violence is poisonous and harmful in all forms.” My behavior at the Academy Awards last night was both terrible and inexcusable. Jokes about my physical condition are part of the business, but one about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to handle, and I responded emotionally,” the Focus actress said in a statement. “I’d like to make a public apology to you, Chris.” I was both out of line and incorrect. I’m humiliated, and my actions did not reflect the guy I aspire to be.” The public apology to Rock, according to Whitfield, was required. “Because this incident would be linked to Will Smith’s reputation and his first Oscar win, his public apologies [had] to be multi-layered,” the publicist explained. “It should accept responsibility for his heinous actions, provide transparency by revealing what provoked his rage, denounce all forms of violence, and acknowledge that he, like all of us, is a flawed human being who doesn’t always get it right.”

Both agree that Smith and Rock’s race adds a layer of complexity to the matter, with multiple perspectives to consider. People like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar believe Smith has betrayed his race, while others believe he shouldn’t be held to that standard, and still others believe the moment will be used to further reinforce stereotypes about Black men.

Both agree that Smith and Rock’s race adds a layer of complexity to the matter, with multiple perspectives to consider. People like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar believe Smith has betrayed his race, while others believe he shouldn’t be held to that standard, and still others believe the moment will be used to further reinforce stereotypes about Black men.

Whitfield feels that, regardless of the competing viewpoints, Will must “prioritize true, changed behavior that indicates sorrow” in order to go ahead.

For Whitfield, this entails keeping a modest profile on social media. Thanks to his hilarious and imaginative over-the-top posts, the actor has gained over 62 million Instagram followers since joining the platform. He only mentioned the Oscars once before apologizing, with a video of him and his wife captioned, “Me ‘n @jadapinkettsmith got all dressed up to pick chaos.” Since his apologies, he has been deafeningly quiet. “This is a season for healing, and I’m here for it,” Pinkett Smith wrote in a text post.

Foster, on the other hand, believes that keeping away from Instagram is a disservice to who he is. She says it’s a good idea to share the apology with the comments turned off and let it breathe for a few days, but he shouldn’t go into hiding. “You must always remember who your talent is at its core, as well as what your talent brings to the culture on a daily basis.” Will Smith is someone who posts on a regular basis. He doesn’t go completely off the grid for weeks or even days at a time.

As a result, I would not have advised him to withdraw and remain silent, or to take a social media break,” the brand manager explains. “What I don’t believe many people realize is that the majority of the individuals you upset were probably never supporters of yours in the first place. ‘What you choose to do from this day forward should be for the people you’ve been doing it for before this happened,’ I’ve always told a client in a less-than-optimistic circumstance. Those are the folks who are most concerned.’

It’s also possible to talk about the incident on Red Table Talk. While Whitfield believes that the Gemini Man star should stay away from the show, she believes that a planned media interview on a separate platform could help with the initial discussion. “I think it would be good to watch or hear Chris Rock and Will Smith have a reconciliation dialogue about the situation, the complexities of Black male friendships, and the significance of protecting and safeguarding Black women.”

Foster disagrees, claiming that an interview will simply serve to increase the amount of attention they are receiving. “You empower just what you empower.” If he continues to empower the situation, it will just feed it further, and it will live longer. Nowadays, publicists have an advantage. The news cycle is extremely fast-paced. “There’s always something around the corner that will divert your attention away from today,” she explained. “It would be terrible and useless to continuously chose to spotlight a negative scenario. The public has already moved on to the next scandal. They’ve already moved on to the next topic, and they’re already discussing the next individual.”

This isn’t the first time a dramatic onstage ambush has put a celebrity’s career in jeopardy. Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for the MTV Video Music Awards’ Best Video of the Year award in 2009. Whatever his contributions to music or society were at the time, a big portion of the country agreed with Swift and hated the rapper for years. “I don’t think that it’s going to continue to have a detrimental impact on who Will Smith is,” Foster says, “because the guy that he is, and the legacy that he’s established, and the legend that he is, I don’t believe what we witnessed could ever devalue that and invalidate that.”

Smith has opted to keep silent so far, and his status with the Academy is uncertain until the Academy votes on next moves on April 18. The Academy issued statements claiming Smith’s actions was “unacceptable and hurtful,” and that he had breached the Academy’s Standards of Conduct, which included “inappropriate physical contact, abusive or threatening behavior, and compromising the integrity of the Academy,” among other things. There was even a rumor that the Academy could rescind his Oscar (an actor has never been stripped of an Oscar), which would indicate that a momentary lapse in judgment could wipe out decades of work. Rock declined to press charges on the night of the incident, but the LAPD stated that he has the option to make a police report at a later date if he so desires. On March 30, the comic began his stand-up tour, and while he did not discuss what happened with Smith, he stated that he will address it in the future.

When it comes to Smith’s future, Foster believes he should be true to himself. “There is no need for an interview, any further declarations, or anything else to say.” Only whatever personal or professional relationship he wishes to have with Chris Rock needs to be said or corrected. That is a private communication that should be kept secret. He’s already apologized publicly; there’s nothing else he has to say about it because you’re only adding to the negativity and giving people a platform and an opportunity to talk about something that should have died that night.”

“He should keep going, keep doing what he’s doing that’s positive, that’s fantastic.” “He should continue to be vulnerable in the way that he is,” Foster continues, “because people should have that.” “He had such a spotless reputation, and he wasn’t allowed to be human, because a lot of us vicariously want to live through this amazing untouchable, never-makes-a-mistake, Black man, that it actually does him a disservice because he can’t embrace his humanity and who he is as a human being,” she says.



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