In our attention-addicted world, the notion of bad PR has become a quaint anachronism, like watching a TV show when it’s broadcast or publishing Katie Roiphe. But while you’d be forgiven for assuming that any appallingly newsworthy transgression is ultimately a positive career move (let’s face it, Tan Mom probably has an agent by now), that’s not always the case. There is such a thing as bad publicity—however, it’s tricky to predict whether a horrid scandal will render you irredeemably persona non grata, or set you up for life. Since it would behoove us all to grasp the whys and wherefores of this complex terrain, here’s a handy quiz:
• My sordid sexual escapades were captured for posterity and accidentally disseminated to the entire world. Now I’m defined by this one blunder—but can the exposure be worked to my advantage?
Are you a young female celebrity? Congratulations! You have ascended ten rungs on the fame ladder. Tell your manager you’ll be taking meetings for a fashion line, practice a hurt and betrayed demeanor (your stylist will know what look goes with that) and get ready to publish the first volume of your autobiography.
Are you a middle-aged male politician? Game over, I’m afraid. It’s time for you to retreat sheepishly from public life, “work on your marriage,” and stay away from the internet. Enter sex addiction rehab to explore how profoundly you’ve let down yourself, your family and your constituents, and perhaps one day you’ll be offered some non-prime time news punditry.
• I’m a red-blooded hetero guy—seriously, I love having sex with my wife, okay?—who happens to have a problem with gay men, and I’m not afraid to say so. Could this be damaging to my career prospects?
Are you an actor on a popular TV show? Uh oh. After being fired in disgrace, you’ll be permanently branded a nasty bigot and your career will never recover. Be grateful for those bit parts and roles in low-budget schlock, and hope that Mel Gibson finally starts taking your calls.
Are you a Republican senator who regards climate change as a left wing conspiracy theory and intelligence design as hard science? Then homophobia is practically in your job description, silly! Keep reminding everyone that God has reserved marriage for straight people, who can obviously be relied upon to treat the sacred institution with due reverence, and you might just become the leader of the free world.
• I was out one weekend, being driven around in a flashy car and having a lovely time, when one of my entourage brandished a firearm in full view of the paparazzi. How big of a deal is this?
Is your sister a British Princess? Don’t worry—the powers that be will intervene to prevent any legal bother, and this little episode will only enhance your appealingly naughty image. It’s not as though your in-laws don’t adore a spot of shooting themselves!
Are you a rapper? Then the outlook is not so peachy: everyone present will be swiftly arrested and charged with weapon possession, and a stretch at Riker’s is likely. Silver lining: if you survive the big house, you might achieve the elite hip hop milestone of the post-prison album.
• Desperate for success as an author, I published a memoir that was, well, not exactly an accurate reflection of my experiences. It was very well-received, but then the truth came out, and I was widely castigated. Have I blown my chance for a writing life?
Are you a dude who thinks he’s Hemingway, Bret Easton Ellis and Jack Kerouac rolled into one? Hey, man, relax. Sure, you’ll take some flak, but before long your notoriety will net you a seven-figure advance for another book. And your “memoir” can continue to sell as a “novel.”
Are you a middle-class woman who passed herself off as a crack-dealing gang member from the mean streets of South Central? Commiserations. Even if Michiko gave you a rave, your book will be recalled and your name will never be mentioned in polite circles, nor seen in print, again. Maybe you could form a support group with Laura Albert and that “Navahoax” guy?
• I was accused of a grisly murder that made international headlines and divided public opinion. In the end, thanks to question marks over DNA evidence, I was acquitted and freed. What does my future hold?
Are you a black former athlete? Welcome to a life of pariah-dom. You’ll find it very difficult to ever work again, and are doomed to wind up back in prison for numerous other crimes.
Are you a young white girl? Ka-ching! You are now the proud recipient of a Murdoch-signed check for $4 million. Expect various other lucrative media offers, invitations onto talk shows like Katie Couric’s and the fabulous honor of appearing on the Maxim Hot 100 List.
Well done: you are now exhaustively and scientifically equipped to assess the personal pros and cons of an embarrassing controversy. (Disclaimer: all stunts should be carried out at your own risk. I am not a lawyer or a publicist, although I am someone whose life is an empty husk until “The Good Wife” returns.)