Long before getting into comms and PR, I had a love for celebrity gossip. Tabloid magazines first, best dressed lists online, Buzzfeed listicles at their peak, I ate it all up. Later as a professional, I came to appreciate what went on behind the scenes to make these stories happen – the countless hours of soft outreach, relationship-building, and more. However, as social media and online channels have outpaced more traditional media over the last decade, the role of traditional celebrity PR has evolved. Some have adapted, while others have been a case study in falling behind.
That’s right folks, we have to talk about Taylor Swift, The Queen in the North, and Mr. Perfectly Fine.
Blind Items, DeuxMoi, and TikTok
Much like Perez Hilton in the 00’s and tabloid magazines, the internet era of celebrity gossip relies on fairly dubious means of information gathering. Blind items have been a pillar of the gossip ecosystem since the term was first coined in the 19th century. In the past, celebrity PR teams would often use blind items to their advantage, passing on unofficial “you didn’t hear this from me” bits to shape the public narrative around their client.
Today, blind items move faster than ever online. And more people are in on the game. The rise of channels like DeuxMoi rely solely on collecting dozens of blind items across the internet to shape a story. And unlike in the past where blind items had to reach a specific group of columnists, nowadays anyone can post blinds online and anyone can take those blinds and turn them into content. If you search on Instagram or TikTok there are thousands of accounts dedicated to a specific corner of celebrity gossip. Which begs the question…
What role does a PR team play in this new era?
Taylor Swift’s team is a prime example of making the most of this online ecosystem. The Eras Tour this year dominated the For You pages of millions, even if you yourself were not a fan. Swift’s team expertly drops hints, clues, and teasers about upcoming tour developments, new music releases, and more. Rather than seeing the online gossip machine as a threat, Swift’s team has found ways to engage fans and casual listeners alike in a kind of digital scavenger hunt. And it worked. Just look at the recent coverage around her latest possibly real, possibly not, relationship with Travis Kelce. The whirlwind around Swift’s attendance at a few games has completely taken over (and helped everyone move on from her last deeply troubling paramour).
Old strategies die hard
While Swift’s era of NFL fandom is just winding up, another celebrity story has highlighted the many ways that a PR team can quickly lose control of the narrative with out of date methods. The ongoing split between Sophie Turner (A.K.A. the Queen in the North) and Joe Jonas (of Disney Channel fame) has played out across the full gossip ecosystem. And at every turn, Jonas’ team has missed. Heavy-handed “leaks” to traditional publications like Page Six have largely landed poorly, with many dismissing the tactics for what they are: a calculated strategy. After years of keeping their children entirely out of the public eye, very few of us online bought that the many photos we are now seeing of Jonas and his daughters out and about were not planned.
In the midst of this swirl, perhaps the most radical strategy has come from Turner’s team – silence. For an outreach strategy to work, sometimes the best thing to do is recognize that less is, in fact, more. Which is exactly what Turner’s team has been up to, with mostly official statements and minimal engagement in the swirl being generated by Jonas’ team.
Where do we go from here?
At the end of the day, PR for celebrities and organizations alike is about changing perceptions and controlling the public narrative. And as always, the channels and strategies we use to do this are rapidly changing to reach people where they are. In 2023, that means ensuring that your outreach efforts don’t have a gaping online blind spot.