Reacting to Bad Press: What Business Leaders Can Learn From ​​Johnny Depp’s Cautionary Tale
Aaron Perlut | Partner

Millions of celebrity news followers have been glued to the wall-to-wall news coverage and live-streaming of the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard trial, while much like anything related to the Kardashians, people like me are unsuccessfully trying to avoid it altogether.

If you’re one of the 17.8 people who is unfamiliar, here’s a synopsis: Heard is an actress who starred in Aquaman and was married to Depp. Apparently, they had a rocky marriage. After their divorce, she published an op-ed in the Washington Post about her experiences with domestic abuse. It was actually drafted by the ACLU, after the organization was promised a $3.5 million donation from her divorce, and the organization hoped Heard would become a figurehead in the #MeToo movement. Although the op-ed did not mention Depp by name, the piece detailed the pains Heard had suffered. Depp then filed a $50 million lawsuit against Heard claiming he subsequently lost valuable acting opportunities while she is countersuing him for $100 million.

On June 1, a jury found both Heard and Depp liable for defamation. The jury found that Heard defamed Depp in three separate statements in The Washington Post piece, and that Depp defamed Heard with one statement his attorney made. The jury awarded Depp $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million dollars in punitive damages. The jury awarded Heard $2 million in compensatory damages and no money for punitive damages.

Regardless of the money — and Depp probably needs it much less than Heard — the question I keep asking myself is whether Depp’s lawsuit about a story that does not even mention his name brought far more unnecessary damage to his reputation than the op-ed itself?  The answer is a resounding yes, and it’s a cautionary for companies and c-suite executives.

To understand why, first consider a few key factors:

  • Because Heard’s op-ed did not directly mention Depp by name, there is no Google search validation which is where opinions largely live and die as historical record.
  • The trial itself (and the news coverage) has brought the alleged deviances of Depp’s lifestyle – true or not – to millions upon millions of the movie-going public.  Regardless of whether the allegations are factual, it’s a bad look – almost as bad as his new mob boss fashion sense.
  • Unlike the op-ed, the news coverage of the trial – with Depp’s name in the forefront – will live forever in search and contain ugly allegations about his allegedly abusive lifestyle.
  • Memories are short. People forgive – unless you’re famous and leave your equally-famous wife and marry your step-daughter (and yet, many will still pay to see a Woody Allen film). If Hollywood was upset with Depp, they would have forgiven him in a few years after some big comeback film (Edward Scissorhands II anyone?). Now, it’s much, much harder to do. Welcome to Mel Gibson territory, Johnny!
  • Finally, yes fans on social media have overwhelmingly sided with Depp. For example, on TikTok, the hashtag #justiceforjohnnydepp has 7.5 billion views and #amberheardisaliar has 1.2 billion. But it’s the studio executives that really matter and they likely will not want to carry Depp’s baggage for a few years following this debacle.

Had the op-ed simply come and gone, it would have been like the day you showed up to work with that really bad haircut. Sure, it was not a good look. But in about 10 days, your hair grew back in and the bad trim was forgotten.  

These behaviors are not solely reserved for A-list Hollywood celebrities. I have repeatedly seen this same pattern of behavior in business: A negative story runs, a few thousand people see it, some share on Twitter and Facebook where a conversation runs its course and the story is done in three-to-five days.

Enter the heroic CEO and he’s on fire.

“We need to respond to this bullshit! They just don’t understand. We need to educate this reporter and have him write a new story.”

No, the reporter nor your customers likely will not understand or even care for that matter. You are far better off stepping back, letting things simmer down, allowing your positive behaviors speak for themselves rather than pitching the same story with a new twist or writing some misguided letter to the editor that no one will read, believe or care about. In fact, immediately responding will only breathe air into the story for a far longer period of time.  

Whether he won or not — and $15 million is nothing to sneeze at — Depp’s lawsuit should serve as a cautionary tale for businesses upset with a round of bad press. His reaction, and not Heard’s op-ed, gave life to the story. Thus, next time your CEO wants to educate a reporter, hand him a Blue-Ray copies of Lethal Weapon 7 or Pirates of the Caribbean and say, “Remember these guys?”


*this post was originally written May 20 and updated June 1
Aaron Perlut
Aaron Perlut is a cofounding partner of Elasticity with some 30 years of diverse experience in journalism, public relations and digital marketing. He is a former senior reputation management counselor at Omnicom-company FleishmanHillard, as well as a communications executive for two of the nation's largest energy companies. Throughout his career, Perlut has counseled a range of organizations---Fortune 500s, state governments, professional sports franchises, economic development authorities, well-funded startups and large non-profits---helping manage reputation and market brands across diverse channels in an evolving media environment.
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