How Celebrities Avoid Getting Canceled

What PR Agents And Branding Experts Have To Say About Cancel Culture

The days of the disempowered staying quiet are over, but historical biases and confusing rhetoric have changed how we hold wrongdoers accountable.

By Shivani Dubey | Published Nov. 9, 2023

This story is a part of our weeklong series on cancel culture.
Read the other stories here.

At one point, the word “Scientology” followed megastar Tom Cruise like a shadow. No matter where he went or what he did, people would mention his connections to the controversial Church of Scientology. Years later, his links to the church seemingly haven’t tarnished his image, and they rarely get mentioned on big stages (except that one time at the Golden Globes).

Instead, Cruise has slowly but surely re-branded into the wild stunt guy who wants to save cinema, with people waiting to see the next death-defying thing he will do to top his previous work.

But how did he manage this?

To put it simply, there is no one more quintessentially Hollywood than Tom Cruise. People wait with bated breath to see what he will attempt in his next film and just how far he will go to get that perfect shot. In fact, a huge part of his marketing ploy for “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One” was giving people a behind-the-scenes look at how he managed to pull off the movie’s biggest stunts. His new image was further cemented with the release of “Top Gun: Maverick,” which earned a Best Picture nod and often gets credited as the film that saved post-pandemic cinema. (Even Steven Spielberg thinks so.)

“Tom Cruise is a special type of brand,” said crisis communication expert Molly McPherson. “He is a great example of someone who lives a life that most people are confused by. He has so much built-in admiration as a box-office star that I think it is difficult for people to all of a sudden say they don’t like him anymore.”

Tom Cruise in "Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One."
Tom Cruise in “Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One.”

There is one thing I’ve noticed over time as “cancel culture” became a phenomenon: Almost no one remains canceled forever. Somehow, nearly each and every person returned to the limelight. But how does this even happen? What goes on behind the scenes to bring canceled stars back to life? How did Taylor Swift turn the downfall of her reputation into a powerful career re-brand? How do people like Winona Ryder and Robert Downey Jr. — celebrities who were arrested and dragged through the mud of tabloids — find their way back to positive media coverage?

Well, they don’t just do it on their own. Stars like these have tons of public relations and branding agents tirelessly working behind the scenes, trying to propel them back to an astronomical level of success.

“PR and branding are essential elements when a celebrity is facing cancel culture or a crisis of any sort,” said Evan Nierman, the founder of crisis PR agency Red Banyan. “How they interact with the public makes a fundamental difference in navigating high-stakes or crisis situations.”

He added: “For a celebrity, their brand is everything. In fact, in Hollywood the actor’s brand often is even more prominent than whatever film in which they are appearing or the products they are promoting.”

“In truth, no celebrity is ever publicly uncanceled to the same degree as when they were initially held accountable. The greatest hope is for their grievances to be forgiven.”

Rudy Mawer, CEO of Mawer Capital

Whether it is through a total image re-brand, an apology or just making a resurgence after some time out of the spotlight, many celebrities find their way back.

Swift offered a master class in lying low at the height of controversy. When Kim Kardashian implied that Swift was a “snake” in 2016, the singer essentially removed herself from media scrutiny for the next year. Swift had claimed that Kanye West, now known as Ye, had not sought her approval when making his song “Famous.” The hit name-checks Swift, calls her a “bitch” and hints that she and Ye “might still have sex.” Kardashian then released a secret recording suggesting that Ye had actually consulted her about the song. Swift issued a statement saying that she was not told about the “bitch” part.

Recording artists Kanye West (L) and Taylor Swift hug during the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards.

Christopher Polk/MTV1415 via Getty Images

Recording artists Kanye West (L) and Taylor Swift hug during the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards.

In 2017, she came back with “Reputation,” which was her answer to everything that went down in the Ye-Kardashian controversy. That year, even amid an album release, Swift deftly avoided paparazzi and only performed a few times — a marked reduction in public appearances for fans who followed her every move closely. A little over two years later, she released the documentary “Miss Americana,” which addressed the breakdown and rehabilitation of her brand while also revealing some of her political views for the first time in her career.

“[Swift] did something clever when Kim Kardashian referred to her as a snake,” Nierman said. “Rather than running away from that slight, she just co-opted the imagery of the snake and by doing so defanged (pun intended) its ability to harm her.”

There are different crisis management tactics depending on how, why or when an individual is canceled or embroiled in controversy. PR reps often coordinate with parties that can showcase their clients in a favorable light.

Take pop singer Justin Bieber before and after his “Purpose” era. In 2014, the singer was arrested on suspicion of driving under influence. The next year, he pleaded guilty to assault and careless driving. There were other legal troubles, as well as his apparent hostility toward fans and the scrutiny over his relationship with actor Selena Gomez. He took some time before “Purpose” was released, participated in a Comedy Central roast and, at the end of it, sincerely apologized for past indiscretions. “Purpose” was very much a reflection of his life and his flaws, and also touched quite a bit on spirituality.

Justin Bieber is released from the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center after he was arrested for DUI and resisting arrest on Jan. 23, 2014, in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo by Uri Schanker/Getty Images)

Uri Schanker via Getty Images

Justin Bieber is released from the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center after he was arrested for DUI and resisting arrest on Jan. 23, 2014, in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo by Uri Schanker/Getty Images)

“Being tactful with what you respond to, what you say when you respond and how many comments you put out in regards to the situation can drastically change the outcome,” said Rudy Mawer, the CEO of Mawer Capital. “This is often resolved with an apology tour, charity donations, ‘raw’ interviews or an official statement. Things like this are often crafted by the PR team in order to ensure the client is properly recouping any lost connections.”

Leonardo DiCaprio suffered a hit to his popularity when it was revealed that none of his past girlfriends seemed to be older than 25. Rumors soon circulated about a relationship with Gigi Hadid, who was then 27 years old — a move that people online saw as an obvious PR stunt. Their relationship apparently only lasted about a year.

Jonathan Majors is a recent example of an extremely high-profile celebrity who everyone was rooting for until domestic violence allegations caused what seemed to be a catastrophic career downfall. Majors has denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty to criminal charges against him. Recently, he has been dating actor Meagan Good in what appears to be an attempt to rehabilitate his image in the court of public opinion. After a video of Majors breaking up a fight between two high school girls went viral — and many social media users called the altercation fake — a lawyer for the actor insisted that the scuffle was not staged.

“In truth, no celebrity is ever publicly uncanceled to the same degree as when they were initially held accountable,” Mawer said. “The greatest hope is for their grievances to be forgiven.”

Actor Jonathan Majors, and his girlfriend, Meagan Good, flanked by his lawyer Priya Chaudhry (R), arrive to Manhattan Criminal Court for his pre-trial hearing on Aug. 3, 2023 in New York City. If convicted, Majors could face up to a year in jail over misdemeanor charges of assault and harassment. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Alexi Rosenfeld via Getty Images

Actor Jonathan Majors, and his girlfriend, Meagan Good, flanked by his lawyer Priya Chaudhry (R), arrive to Manhattan Criminal Court for his pre-trial hearing on Aug. 3, 2023 in New York City. If convicted, Majors could face up to a year in jail over misdemeanor charges of assault and harassment. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

But often, PR-assisted interviews or moments fare well for some notable figures. In the case of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the circumstances of their unpopularity had a lot to do with Britain’s love for the royal family, as well as a lot of (often racist) backlash directed toward Markle. They removed themselves from the family, moved to America and stayed silent for the longest time — until they had a tell-all discussion with Oprah Winfrey, which is a strategy straight out of the PR crisis playbook.

When the couple gave their infamous interview, everyone knew that it would be a tell-all, but that it would also be heavily curated with questions and answers planned out well in advance. It helped them gain public sympathy while also providing an inside look into the royal life that is normally unavailable to the public.

At the same time, being canceled can be such a fleeting moment, especially as people quickly place their outrage on the next person or topic of the day.

“In my opinion, the main aspect of ensuring a celebrity isn’t canceled is proper and very thorough media prep,” said Luke Lintz, a PR expert and the founder of HighKey Enterprises. “Whenever a celebrity is in front of the media, it is thoroughly planned out beforehand, so everyone knows the exact questions that will be asked. Everyone knows exactly how the answers will be given.”

Armie Hammer, the disgraced “Call Me by Your Name” actor who was accused of sexual assault but ultimately not charged, recently gave an interview hoping to gain some sympathy points. The reaction online was pretty muted. More than anything, people were surprised that he managed to find a platform to speak out from at all. After that, Hammer disappeared from the limelight again. And based on how little the internet responded, it just seemed like people either saw through the interview or simply did not care enough at that point to listen to his story.

Cancel culture, at its core, is seen as a tool for holding powerful people accountable. Celebrities like convicted sexual predator R. Kelly and convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein appear to be canceled for life, but that is mostly because they’ve faced the consequences of the justice system. Bill Cosby, who was found guilty of aggravated indecent assault in 2018 but had his conviction overturned in 2021, also fits with this group.

“I believe a celebrity is only canceled when there isn’t demand for the person anymore, or if they have broken a law or exploited another human being,” said McPherson. “If the demand for a person is bigger than the problems people have with them, then they tend to get through their cancellation.”

Many critics of cancel culture view it as a senseless form of mob rule. In the age of social media, every move is scrutinized; every past tweet, interview and Instagram post is analyzed with a fine-toothed comb. There is a lot of discourse online about how this phenomenon has ruined people’s lives and how even a small misstep can make you a victim of it.

At the same time, being canceled can be such a fleeting moment, especially as people quickly place their outrage on the next person or topic of the day. In some circles, a celebrity’s actions make them persona non grata, and in another group, their bad actions can be overlooked.

Dave Chappelle won a Grammy for his extremely controversial comedy special “The Closer,” which included transphobic views about gender and identity, despite an outpouring of criticism from Netflix workers and others. Louis C.K. has garnered Grammy recognition after admitting to sexual misconduct. Even Ye — who had spewed anti-Black rhetoric and spread conspiracy theories — was still receiving the support of Hollywood and numerous brands until he showed support for antisemitic views.

Whether it is through a total image re-brand, an apology or just making a resurgence after some time out of the spotlight, many celebrities find their way back.

Scorned celebrities like J.K. Rowling, Ellen DeGeneres and Johnny Depp are all still thriving in one way or the other. Rowling is an executive producer on the upcoming “Harry Potter” series in development at Max, and Depp’s acting career has hardly suffered.

There is a very simple reason for this. These celebrities are incredibly high-profile and beloved by millions, and they bring a huge amount of revenue into the entertainment industry with their respective works. Usually, casting someone that famous guarantees publicity for a project, so it is in the best interest of a studio or organization to hire a big name despite some negative attention, Nierman said.

“You cannot truly cancel a celebrity because time, response and familiarity are in their favor,” said PR expert Quincy Dash. “After all, fans fall in love with a star for the talent they possess. So even if you’re in hot water for the moment, people will always remember why they fell in love with you in the first place.”