Will Reese Witherspoon's Image Survive the DUI Scandal?
By quickly saying she was "deeply embarrassed" by her arrest for disorderly conduct this weekend, crisis management experts say Reese Witherspoon has minimized the damage to her "America's Sweetheart" image.
"They didn't wait until Monday morning, they got the statement out on Sunday night," said Ross Johnson, a veteran crisis management expert who worked on the Wesley Snipes income tax trial. "By its very definition, it becomes a one-day story."
It was an ugly situation, publicists say, that would have been much worse were it not for the fast spin-control. Unless it's the beginning of a pattern of bad behavior, they expect the issue will go away and Witherspoon's wholesome persona won't be permanently tarnished.
That doesn't mean Hollywood and Witherspoon's fans weren't shocked to see the "Sweet Home Alabama" star in a dust-up with the law. If the police report is to be believed, and Witherspoon's team did little to dispute the facts, then the actress behaved like a diva after Atlanta police arrested her husband Jim Toth for driving while intoxicated in the wee hours of Friday morning.
According to the police report, Witherspoon asked the arresting officer if he knew who she was and then stated, "You're about to find out who I am...You're going to be on national news."
That kind of attitude is dramatically different from Witherspoon's image as a unassuming movie star, who is also a proud mother of three. It's also the 37-year old's first high-profile brush with scandal, despite two decades in the spotlight.
"The reason why this is newsworthy is it's so unexpected," said Matthew Hiltzik, founder of Hiltzik Strategies, which represents Alec Baldwin and Katie Couric, among others. "It's so different from her public persona. If she were someone who was consistently finding themselves in trouble, it would be less interesting."
However, Hiltzik thinks the story will quickly fade.
Toth, who is an agent at Creative Artists Agency and who was driving, may have more trouble explaining away the incident and the embarrassing headlines. In agency culture, after all, it is important that representatives never become the story, something that was made impossible after Toth logged a .139 on a Breathalyzer test administered at the scene.
A spokeswoman for CAA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The key going forward for Witherspoon will be striking the right balance between acknowledging wrong-doing, while not being prostrate with contrition, Hiltzik and others stress. They argue that her initial statement last night, in which she acknowledged drinking too much and stressed that she had respect for the police was nearly note perfect.
The only quibble was that the statement did not explicitly say that her behavior was not representative of how she feels or the kind of person she is, one veteran publicist who declined to talk on the record said.
A spokesperson for Witherspoon declined to comment on this story.
The actress has a movie opening on Friday, the indie drama "Mud" co-starring Matthew McConaughey, so hibernation away from flashbulbs and microphones is out of the question. Indeed, she took to the red carpet and gamely smiled for cameras at Sunday evening's premiere. She did not, however, answer questions from the press.
Experts say that she should continue to promote the film and not cancel any appearances, while referring most inquiries about her arrest to her carefully constructed and legally vetted statement.
They caution that at this point there is no need for a tearful mea culpa on Oprah's couch.
Howard Bragman, a long-time crisis management publicist and vice chairman of Reputation.com, said he does not think that Witherspoon's sin is on the level of Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic meltdown or any of Charlie Sheen's myriad substance abuse flare-ups, famous flameouts that badly damaged their careers.
"Reese is Teflon and kind of beloved," Bragman said. "For her this ends up being a speed bump."
At some point, after the legal process winds down, he said he expects Witherspoon and Toth to do some sort of joint interview and to possibly involve herself in an organization aimed at combating drunk driving.