Today’s social media-obsessed world has created a saturation of information; everyone is a tweet away from potential disaster—and that’s a very frightening reality when you think about it.
You don’t have to be famous or a reality star to be the center of a social media scandal.
As a psychotherapist who has been in the TV world for more than 20 years, I am forever fascinated by the speed with which one can fall from grace. I am also equally fascinated by how these same individuals can rehabilitate their temporarily tainted image, especially when the glaring and judgmental light shines so brightly across various media channels and threatens to live on indefinitely via unforgiving Google searches.
In the worst-case scenario, a social media scandal can cause its subjects not only a smeared reputation but also the loss of one’s career, income, and social status.
To learn more about this intriguing world of publicity gone awry, I reached out to top crisis manager and legal coach Wendy Feldman after reading about her work with former Playmate of the Year Dani Mathers.
You may remember this headline story. Mathers was a former model who was charged with a misdemeanor invasion of privacy after taking a photograph and sharing a naked picture of a 71-year-old woman on Snapchat in a Los Angeles gym last year.
How could anyone—even veteran crisis manager Feldman—fix this reputation nightmare, I wondered.
But this isn’t the first time Feldman has taken on such challenging and high-profile cases. She’s worked with everyone from Mike G, Kelly Rutherford, Courtney Wagner, and many other renowned clients.
While there are many reasons why Feldman’s clients are lucky to have her, one of the biggest ones is that she understands where her clients are coming from and what they are experiencing. A native Californian, Feldman credits her ability to empathize with clients to her own experience serving time in a federal prison camp. Her personal transformation post-prison influences the way she views the world, and informs the approach she takes to her work.
Like a good therapist, Feldman, who is currently writing the book “Crisis Management Rules for Life: How to avoid, prepare for, survive & reinvent yourself after a crisis,” wants her clients to take full responsibility for where they are today, understand how they got there, and to take their apologies seriously—very seriously. She expects clients to use their social platforms, post-crisis, to make a valuable difference. Her unique approach makes her a gift not only to those she works with but also to the world they navigate after their very public challenges.
I had the opportunity to interview Feldman and learn more about the field of crisis management and how she got to be the top legal and crisis manager in her field.
How did you become one of the most sought after crisis/media managers working today?
That is a very simple answer: I am probably the only crisis manager/media manager who started out in a place where I needed to hire somebody like me and could not find one. It seems odd to me to guide somebody else through a deeply personal crisis without having experienced one yourself. The same thing holds true with trial preparation and how to speak to a judge, and even prison preparation and re-entry coaching. All of these models might fit many clients or just one. It depends on the reason why the person or business is in crisis. Then we add in the media work if the client is high profile. That can be as simple as keeping items out of the press, to helping a client change his/her image and make the proper media choices.
When working with a corporation, the basic rules are the same, but the issues may be managing negative press to dealing with hacked email dumps and what the employees should or should not say.
During one of our conversations, you told me you didn’t believe in reputation management. What do you mean by this? And what is the difference between a crisis manager and a reputation manager?
Reputation management means what—getting your negative news off the front search pages? I have been pitched that many times, but who cares. Reputation management on its own holds no meaning. It is a Band-Aid because without real change, the person will have another crisis or re-offend. I call that people who need an “Incarcervention”— a legal-slanted intervention. Just look at R. Kelly. A few years ago, he hired a well-known crisis manager who does good work, but what was missing was a genuine desire to change with a respect for the consequences, and not seeking more entitlement.
So, when I hear “reputation manager,” I am not sure what that is. I do know several have pitched me to be their client to get negative things off the front page of Google. That is just a waste of time.
You are a crisis manager on a mission. You don’t take just any client. What kind of qualifications do your clients need in order for you to work with them?
I work with people who allow me to build teams with them. One of my favorite lawyers to work with, for instance, is former prosecutor Phil Chronakis of Budd Larner in NYC. He’s great at team-building and we recently had two major cases covered by the New York Post as well as many other news outlets. Team-building is key. It takes the ego out of the process and makes sure the client comes first. We aim for collaboration.
One huge mistake in big cases is that nobody is the captain, and this leads to all kinds of issues. For example, an attorney wants to win, that is his/her job, but what about after or what about why the person is in crisis? Who will arrange for therapy or rehab? Usually, that is me picking the best of the best to serve the client and their family. What I do is very holistic. I forget nobody, from the core family to the parents, coworkers, PR people, etc. My clients must want to do the work—period.
About 25 percent of my business is pro bono; these people really want help and need it. Others need it but think they can write a check and all is well; clearly, that is wrong. Change is almost always brought about by a catastrophic event. It takes work to bring about real change.
You know a lot of Hollywood insiders and A-listers; how did you become so knowledgeable about this world?
I grew up in Los Angeles and went to school with many high-level Hollywood people. It was the parents who were well known, not the friends I grew up with. Do I have an advantage because of this? Sure, but my biggest asset is having stood in my client’s shoes. I know them in every way.
You were telling me that your background makes you more empathetic with your clients. Can you say more about this?
I have been that difficult client. I have been the client standing before a judge. And I have been that woman who made poor choices and missed my daughter’s high school graduation because I was incarcerated. I am the person who reinvented herself and came back to be a productive member of society and [involved] in my children’s lives and my family’s lives.
It is now my honor to help people when nobody else will. Some of my clients have children who have committed heinous crimes. But the children of those people are also victims, as are the families, spouses, etc. I help those people even if it means talking to somebody who did something awful.
One thing we must never forget is almost all people who are incarcerated are coming home, and most in less than five years. We must deal with this, and reform our justice system.
Even as a psychotherapist, I wouldn’t have the first clue how to turn around someone’s tarnished reputation. Is this something you received training for, or a skill you just intuitively have?
Most “fixers” have some personal tie-in. Those who do not are either criminologists or very skilled at a segment of what needs to be done. Take security: I can make sure my client has everyone they deal with sign an NDA [non-disclosure agreement], and make sure they have proper insurance. I can also do small things like make sure they do not reveal where they are on social media, adjust the privacy settings on their smart phones, TVs, and toys, and tape over their computer’s webcam. But even with that, my client likely still needs a security team. That is not my skill set. It is a matter of staying in your lane and doing what you do well.
Social media makes all of us just a post away from a potential public disaster. What’s your advice for those who can’t hire you?
First of all, there is no reason to reveal personal information like your whereabouts on social. As for Twitter wars, unless you can stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen and do something productive.