How Important Are Political Statements By Entertainers? (And the Public Relations Affect Of Actors Talking Politics.)

Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

Prior to joining Burson-Marsteller, where as senior vice president/senior counselor I was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and nonsports programs and travelled internationally as a media advisor to high-ranking government officials, I worked at a PR firm whose founder also produced many Broadway and off-Broadway shows. After a couple of years of running the nontheatrical PR department, I was drafted to also read scripts and work on Broadway shows.

That’s when I first experienced a love-hate relationship. I admired the talents of many actors, but detested the rude behavior of some when they felt that they were not getting the recognition, respect and adoration they thought they deserved. Which brings me to the dressing down by an actor given to Vice President Mike Pence when he attended “Hamilton” in 2016.

Personally, I believe Mike Pence represents a brand of politics that is backward looking and should have disappeared from the political scene decades ago. If I lived in Indiana, I would have voted against him many times. But unlike entertainers, many of whom are so wrapped up in themselves that they think what they say on nonshow business situations matters to people, Pence has had a career that really matters to individuals, as governor, congressman and now vice-president.

Did Brandon Victor Dixon, who portrayed Aaron Burr in “Hamilton” at the time, have the right to admonish Mr. Pence? Certainly he did, (as do all performers). But as the old real estate slogan goes, “location, location, location.” (If every politician who attends a show was lectured by a cast member about political issues, the Broadway stage would resemble London’s Hyde Park’s famous Speakers Corner.)

Pence was in the theater as a member of the audience.  He wasn’t there to express his political opinion. As far as I’m concerned, Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band was correct when he said, “A guy comes to a Broadway show for a relaxing night out. Instead he gets a lecture from the stage! Not a level playing field. It’s bullying. You don’t single out an audience member and embarrass him from the stage. A terrible precedent to set.” Mr. Van Zandt cut to the chase. It wasn’t a level playing field. Pence didn’t have an equal opportunity to defend himself. (Performers being upset about others talking politics while on stage is nothing new. A 2016 Rolling Stone article about the The Highwaymen, the great country outlaw group of Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, quoted Jenning’s widow saying, “Kris was very much into politics. Waylon never believed that you should use that platform of entertainment [for that], so that really chafed him, but he understood Kris, and Kris understood him.”)

The “Hamilton”-Pence situation was unusual and ironic: A vice president-elect being lectured by an entertainer playing the role of a vice president. It deserved the media attention. What got me to bring up the “Hamilton”-Pence s matter now was Oprah Winfrey’s going door-to-door to campaign for Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia.

Of course, Ms. Winfrey has the right to campaign for any candidate she supports. It’s the way that the cable TV networks covered Ms. Winfrey (and other show biz folk who engage in politics). It’s as if because someone is a performer, they deserve media coverage for their political stance.

Ari Melber, on MSNBC, consistently has show business performers discussing politics on his show, and disappointingly, so did Chick Todd on a recent MTP Daily. (Gives me the impression that their resorting to an anything goes tactic is to improve their ratings.)

The political opinions of show business people are no moiré valid than yours or mine. The most committed of them do not remain safe behind the TV or movie cameras or the stage curtain or make quick in-and-out campaign visits. They follow in the footsteps of many other actors have in the past, including Ronald Reagan, John Davis Lodge, George Murphy, Helen Gahagan Douglas, Clint Eastwood, Fred Grandy. Ben Jones, Fred Thompson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Franken, Jesse Ventura, Jerry Springer, and Donald Trump and become active politicians.

Two of the above performers have become president. The others put their show business careers on the line because they felt strongly about political matters. (But one thing is certain. No matter how proficient they were following directions and reading scripts, probably the best ad-liber is our actor-president.)

I have often advised young PR hopefuls to get involved with a political campaign because they’ll learn more about the realistic world of dealing with media and different publics than they ever got from their expensive communications’ schools tuitions.

 I advise them to do so because of the lessons I learned. My first PR job was with a political firm, where I was assigned to local, statewide and presidential campaigns. Every facet of public relations is used during a campaign, some good, and some ugly, but all educational. Teething on politics will also prepare young PR people, about promises made to them by supervisors: Always keep in mind Niccolò Machiavelli’s quote from “The Prince” — “The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.”

In addition to the president-performer, there were many other entertainers who spoke out about issues during the campaign, perhaps none as prominent and able to attract attention and publicity as Ms. Winfrey did. The most prominent other was Taylor Swift, who condemned the voting record of GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the candidate for U.S. Senate from Tennessee. (Ms. Winfrey and Ms. Swift both faced similar problems: Ms. Winfrey getting African-Americans to vote in the mid-term election and Ms. Swift attempting to rally younger voters, who normally skip the mid-terms. Both candidates backed by the entertainers lost.)

In the past, many other performers’ careers were ruined because they felt deeply and spoke out about political matters, especially during the demagogic McCarthy era, seemingly the blue print for the Trump rhetoric The difference is that they did not go door-to-door as did Ms. Winfrey. Which could get a cynic to think of Ms. Winfrey’s effort as either good campaigning or the best publicity stunt of the mid-term election? You decide.

Another You decide question. Would Ms. Winfrey have been more helpful to Stacey Abrams by blitzing the Georgia  print, TV and radio media with interviews than by going door-to-door to a limited number of houses, even though doing so was  sure to attract TV coverage?

But the most relevant question that should be asked is the one that headlines this article: How Important Are Political Statements By Entertainers? Extensive campaigning by show biz folk most often has no affect on the outcome of elections. Ask presidential hopefuls John Kerry in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“If celebrities had a net positive impact on elections Hillary Clinton would be president. Every election cycle the Democratic Party trots out a who’s who of Hollywood stars to campaign for their candidates and every election cycle average Americans yawn,” conservative strategist Chris Barron told Fox News. So far, he’s been right many more times than he’s been wrong.

History shows that actors speaking out in support of candidates are usually unsuccessful, while performers running for office have a higher success rate. But one thing is clear: Win or lose, run as a candidate or not, actors taking a stand on political matters garner more publicity than a team of traditional PR pros can get them. And they always outshine their candidates.


How Important Are Political Statements By Entertainers? (And the Public Relations Affect Of Actors Talking Politics.)About the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com and artsolomon4pr(at)optimum.net.

image_print

2 Comments

  1. Bernie Weiss on November 8, 2018 at 8:44 am

    It’s not just politics. Has anyone ever accurately calculated the bottom line sales value of celebrity endorsements of any product? Did people really buy Wheaties because athletes’ pictures appeared on the box? I worked at an insurance company that engaged a very famous actor to promote our brand. Distinguished Hollywood career… nice guy to be around… yet with zero evident expertise about life insurance. Of course, he wasn’t hired to recommend our product because he recognized its technical superiority; the idea was that his positive image would somehow attach to the brand. Did it work? Who knows?

  2. Arthur Solomon on November 8, 2018 at 10:31 am

    Mr. Weiss

    I agree with you 1000 percent (if there is such a thing). For years, I’ve been writing and telling clients that there are better ways to market products than paying a celebrity to do so. But using a celebrity is an easy fix for account people who can’t think of anything else.
    Thanks for responding.

Leave a Comment