One of the hardest lessons you learn as a child is that you can never completely take back something you said. Yes, you can apologize and beg profusely for everyone to forget it happened but the memory and the impact of the statement still exists. As adults, and especially adults in the public spotlight and under the “Twitter magnifying glass,” we learn just how much the simple lesson of “think before you speak” really applies to the world around us. And lately, actress and author Lena Dunham seems to have unfortunately fallen into this trap. Although her heart is often in the right place, she does not always consider the impact her words have on others and she becomes a victim of her own “word vomit syndrome,” for better and for worse. (Image by David Shankbone)
Let’s start with the better. For one, Lena Dunham has become, in a very short time, a completely unique brand and voice that no one else claims credit to. And I would argue that as a celebrity, she is pretty unique and should be applauded for owning that. Even celebrities like Lady Gaga, who people touted as being completely original, ended up with numerous Madonna comparisons. I would also argue that Lena gives some of the best interviews I have seen. Her answers come across as thoughtful yet not rehearsed, genuine without the sappy overtones, and always, always tied back to her overall goal of marketing herself as an assertive face of feminism.
And yet as of late, it seems as though you can’t go a single day without hearing about something Lena said or wrote, most of which are negative. As a public relations professional, I decided to take a closer look at some of the public perception issues that are haunting Lena and how they came to be. And more importantly, how I recommend that Lena, and other brands, learn from these mistakes and turn them into positive occurrences.
- Talking About Issues Yet Not Committing to Change – One piece of advice that we always give our clients is if they are going to take a stance about an issue, they need to be fully committed to that cause. And my team always makes it clear that we, as their PR representatives, aren’t going to publicize their commitment unless we see it and believe it ourselves. (Image Credit)
How does this relate to Lena? The mental illness discussion. Lena has been very candid about her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). When I first heard this, I was elated. I am a huge advocate of celebrities and politicians paving the way for discussion about mental illness. I remember my 7th grade sexual education class very vividly, as well as drug and alcohol awareness classes, yet I have no memory of learning about mental illness. Lena has the platform, and the following, to be a leader in this discussion. And yet as a recent NBC news article noted, she has not become an official spokesperson for the disorder. Lena’s desire to open the discussion about mental illness is a very noble, but she needs to see it all the way through. My hope for her in 2015 is that we see her take on some kind of viral awareness campaign and resource for others suffering from OCD. She needs to walk through the door and help people on the other side, not just open it.
- Twisting the Words of Your Enemies – When you enter the public eye of praise, you unfortunately also enter the public eye of scrutiny. And the worst thing you can do when a critic attacks you is to make their attack seem worse than it actually is. In an interview with Q on CBC, Lena was asked to respond to accusations of nepotism in her show. Lena gives some background about all the main characters and notes that she chose them because of their talent. But she also says “Not to be the girl who cried misogyny everyday, but people are always looking for reasons women are successful.” From my point of view, the accusations of nepotism had nothing to do with Lena’s sexuality. If I were working with her on her media statement, I would have simply explained the reasons behind their casting and left it at that. Because as we seen over the years, no one lives in vacuum, especially in the production world. By implying that the nepotism critics were also misogynists, she is setting herself up for more backlash and taking away from her credibility when she fights an actual misogynistic action.
- Nobody Likes an Overplayed Victim – The best piece of business advice my mother ever gave me was “never go to your boss or your client with a problem; go to them with a solution.” For Lena, her client so-to-speak is her fan base. And she has gone to them with a lot of problems lately.
Lena’s novel, Not That Kind of Girl, received a lot of attention after Truth Revolt, a conservative news website, accused Lena of “using her little sister at times essentially as a sexual outlet”. As a disclaimer, I myself have not read the book nor I think I am at all qualified to determine what constituits sexual molestation. That being said, I was extremely disappointed in Lena’s immediate reaction to the blog, which was to turn herself into a victim. She felt she was being attacked and she let the media and the public know via Twitter.
After a massive amount of public backlash, she came back with a much more appropriate response, stating “First and foremost, I want to be very clear that I do not condone any kind of abuse under any circumstances,” wrote Dunham. “Childhood sexual abuse is a life-shattering event for so many, and I have been vocal about the rights of survivors. If the situations described in my book have been painful or triggering for people to read, I am sorry, as that was never my intention.”
The lesson here though for Lena is that you are not always a victim. You chose to write something and open up the forum for praise and critique of your work. The appropriate response here was not the first one, and even in her second response. she could have offered more solutions to the issue, such as becoming a spokeswomen for a domestic violence/rape awareness campaign. This past December, The Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) actually hosted a rally at the White House to “Stand with Women and Girls Raped in Conflict” which I myself attended. Lena could join with one of these groups to help promote some of their lobbying activities and awareness campaigns. Once again it goes back to the saying that one should bring the solution and not the problem. Bring us the solution Lena.
Although this piece is a critique of some of Lena’s recent actions, I want to make one thing very clear: I admire Lena. I hope that as she continues to grow as an entertainer, she learns from some of these mistakes. My biggest piece of advice for Lena? If you don’t have the solution to an issue you raised or the public raised about you, at least make a commitment to find the solution. Walk the walk.
By Kate Connors
About Media & Communications Strategies, Inc
Media & Communications Strategies, Inc. handles all kinds of critical public relations for US and international clients out of our Washington, D.C. office. We are a founding member of the Public Relations Boutiques International network for constant, far-reaching support. High profile crisis communications is one niche talent, reputation management in all kinds of media is our core expertise and client satisfaction is our specialty.