Going Beyond the Predictable PR Exercise
On Feb. 25, Christian Dior fashion designer John Galliano was arrested in Paris on charges of assault and for making anti-Semitic remarks directed towards a couple in a Marais café. Under French law, making anti-Semitic remarks is punishable by up to six months in prison. While this maximum sentence is rarely handed down (offenders are usually given suspended sentences and a heavy fine for their transgression), the law itself is indicative of France’s staunch stance against intolerance and cultural insensitivity.
A nearby patron’s cell phone captured Galliano’s vitriolic tirade on video. It clearly shows an inebriated Galliano saying, "I love Hitler" and "People like you will be dead" to a couple sitting at a table nearby.
Galliano went on trial on June 22. A date for a verdict and sentencing is scheduled for this coming September. At his trial, Galliano’s lawyers presented a familiar defense; Galliano suffers from alcoholism as well as an addiction to barbiturates, and these vices are what ultimately caused this unfortunate event to unfold. After proceedings came to a close, a source close to Galliano stated to British Vogue, "John is very tired; yesterday was a tough day... (John) is medically very frail as his body comes to terms with the withdrawal from all of his addictions-but he felt yesterday was fair; that everyone understood he has been very ill, poisoning his body with a cocktail of alcohol and pills for so long that when he was out of control and truly knew nothing about his behavior he maintains he is a man who encompasses every race and religion in his personal life and through his creative designs. And that the outbursts are that of a mad man, and not the views he holds."
Arrogant and unapologetic, Galliano has yet to address the underlying problem-cultural insensitivity at best, and deep-seeded anti-Semitism at worst. Instead he, his lawyers, and his PR team have begun down a path often tread by other public figures caught in the media’s crosshairs.
It has become a cultural phenomenon. The story plays out over and over in media outlets across the globe with slight variations in plot line and casting. Earlier this summer New York Congressman Anthony Weiner announced his intention to resign from Congress amid a media frenzy over sexually suggestive pictures sent from his Twitter account. In the weeks leading up to his resignation however, Weiner checked himself into a sexual addiction rehabilitation clinic. He cited his ’disease’ for his errors in judgment, infidelities, and betrayal of his constituency and prayed for public forgiveness.
In 2006, Mel Gibson voluntarily enrolled in a recovery program for struggling alcoholics following his arrest for driving under the influence in Malibu, Calif. A leaked police report revealed a barrage of anti-Semitic remarks made by Gibson upon his arrest. The New York Times said in the report that Gibson is quoted saying "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." Gibson later apologized in an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, saying that his statements were "blurted out in a moment of insanity." Gibson’s efforts to win back public affection were thwarted last summer when allegations bolstered by audio recordings surfaced where Gibson uses deplorable racial epithets not fit for repetition.
The list goes on and on. Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer and David Letterman have all invoked "The Gibson Defense," voluntarily checking into rehabilitation clinics following media fallout surrounding their public transgressions.
From a PR standpoint, the technique is to demonize the action instead of the actor, and characterize the acts or remarks as a symptom of a disease for which the actor is voluntarily seeking treatment. The end goal is to create separation between the deplorable act and the innocent but suffering actor.
Geraldine Bloch, a plaintiff in the case against Galliano, is seeking €1 in damages. Her lawyer said outside of the Paris courthouse that Bloch is "after an expression of regret and an excuse for what has happened." Galliano and his staff of attorneys and representatives have worked tirelessly to erect a wall of separation between Galliano and his remarks. In doing so, however Galliano and those before him fail to acknowledge the victims of their acts.
Accountability and subsequent retribution all too often get lost in the PR media circus surrounding celebrity scandal. Racism and cultural insensitivity, especially when espoused by a public figure, are never victimless crimes. Hopefully, the French court system will realize the harm done by Galliano this coming September and hold him accountable for his actions.