Webster PR, the Nashville firm with the biggest client roster in country music, continues to experience mass defections in the face of sexual harassment charges being publicly lobbed against the company’s president and CEO, Kirt Webster, including flagship client Dolly Parton, who disappeared from the firm’s website Thursday morning.
An artist roster that numbered 71 clients in September was down to 37 by Thursday morning, with most of those exits happening in the previous 24 hours. A list of corporate or non-music clients was down from a peak of 33 in September to 23, putting the total number of recent departures at close to 50. Early Thursday afternoon, the list of clients was finally taken off the Webster PR site altogether.
Among those disappearing from the Webster website since the Nashville Scene first reported allegations on Tuesday afternoon, besides Parton: Kid Rock (whose impending Friday album release had been heavily promoted by Webster), Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams Jr., Kenny G, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tanya Tucker, Big & Rich, Cyndi Lauper, Kiefer Sutherland, Don McLean, the Oak Ridge Boys, William Michael Morgan, Roy Clark, KC and the Sunshine Band, Bill Anderson, Jeannie Seely, LoCash, Lucas Hoge, Lacy J. Dalton, Olivia Lane, John Conlee, Gene Watson, Johnny Lee, Moe Bandy, Tim Rushlow, Leroy Van Dyke, Denny Strickland, Johnny Lee, and Deborah Allen.
Others who parted ways from Webster in recent days or weeks include Justin Moore, Lee Greenwood, Taylor Hicks, Jewel, and Aaron Lewis. It was widely reported Thursday that Randy Travis had “fired” Webster in the wake of the allegations, but Travis actually had not used Webster’s services since February.
Travis’ new publicist, Zach Farnum, left Webster PR in May to start his own company. He tells Variety it was purely a coincidence that he finally announced signing Travis last Friday, the same day that a little-known country hopeful named Austin Rick first took to Facebook to post sexual harassment charges against Webster.
Over the past two days, former employees of Webster PR have alleged to Variety and several other publications that Kirt Webster did a mocking impression of Travis, who still suffers after-effects of a debilitating stroke, in the office. “I hate the accusations that are being made about [Webster] making fun of Randy and all that,” Farnum said, while declining to comment on whether he’d ever witnessed the mockery himself, or anything else about his former employer.
Another former Webster employee, Scott Adkins, has also started his own firm, and he confirmed to Variety that he only resigned as a Webster VP on Wednesday morning. Adkins declined to comment on his tenure with Webster. One of the newly departed Webster clients, Billy Ray Cyrus, already lists Adkins as his new publicist on his web page, although Adkins declined to discuss the developing client roster of his day-old firm yet.
Not all the clients listed on Webster’s site Thursday may still be affiliated with the firm. A rep for Meat Loaf said the rocker hasn’t worked with Webster since the completion of his album cycle late last year, despite still being pictured as a client. (Conway Twitty and Don Williams, two of the 32 artists who were still listed on the roster Thursday before it was deleted, are deceased.)
More than a dozen other former employees of Webster PR have been speaking with the press, albeit mostly not for attribution, telling their own stories of emotionally abusive or suggestive remarks, unwanted touching, and viewings of pornography in the office. There is apparently no shortage of ex-employees to talk with: One publicist who spent years at the company said her long tenure there was the exception, and that the turnover rate was so high, the firm would sometimes cycle through around 50 employees a year in an office of 8-10, many of them recent college graduates getting their first gig in the music industry.
Managers of Webster’s clients have been taken aback by the quick turn of events this week. Parton’s manager, Danny Nozell of CTK Management, had several clients with Webster earlier in the week. By Thursday morning, three of them — Parton, Kenny G, and KC and the Sunshine Band — were gone from the roster, but two others (Seether and Vivic) were still listed. Nozell did not immediately return a request for comment.
As of now, the firm’s website still lists the name of the company as Webster PR and its president and CEO as Kirt Webster. A different Nashville PR firm had issued a press release on Webster’s behalf Wednesday, saying that partner Jeremy Westby would take over leadership while the embattled head temporarily stepped aside to “focus on combating the egregious and untrue allegations. The release also said the name of the company would be changed to Westby PR.
By Thursday morning, a new, separate website had appeared for Westby PR, but it was unclear whether this was to be a continuation of Webster PR or whether Westby was setting up his own shingle. The new Westby PR website consists of nothing but a list of 19 clients, all of whom had appeared, or still do, on the Webster website list — including Rogers, the Oak Ridge Boys, Kenny G, and the controversial NRA Country. Wanda Jackson appears on both the Webster and Westby rosters.
Joyce Moore, Sam Moore’s manager and wife, says she is sticking with Westby and Webster, in whatever new form the company their representation may take. “I think it’s in transition and they’re trying to get everything up to speed,” she says. “Whether this [Austin] Rick guy is telling the truth or not, the idea of how he’s going about handling his private personal business has had a dramatically devastating effect on artists like Sam, who are in the middle of trying to promote their careers and new product.” (The former member of Sam & Dave just released a new album of patriotic music.) “I am actually quite angry at what this guy has done to my 82-year-old client. It has cost him setbacks because of what had to be done at the company, and it has caused us personal sadness because of a 20-year-plus relationship with Kirt and his family.”
Many ex-Webster employees are feeling less sadness about the hit the company is taking. “We’ve all been through hell,” said one of the firm’s more prominent former publicists, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He had one of the best PR teams in the business, and we all just wanted to do our jobs and pursue our dreams. We all witnessed harassment, and some of us were the brunt of it and some weren’t, but it affected all of us. Karma’s a bitch.”
In other developments Thursday, the Tennessean published a report that three more former employees had come forward to the paper with complaints of unwanted sex, groping, or sexual advances involving Webster, The website Taste of Country published a follow-up interview with Rick, the former country artist whose allegations first caused the stir.
Westby and Webster have not returned requests from Variety or other publications for comment on the allegations or business restructuring.
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