Celebrity Damage Control: Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and the Surprising Truth About Image Rehabilitation

Experts weigh in on what the personally embattled actors need (or don't need) to do for their careers to get back to normal
By Rebecca Macatee Jan 10, 2017 12:00 PM
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When Warren Buffett said, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it," he wasn't exaggerating.

This is true whether you're an A-lister or not famous at all. Being tied to a scandal—even by association or by no fault of your own—has the potential to cause damage both personally and professionally. For celebrities, bad press can kill a career, but that doesn't always have to be the case. It all depends on the star, the situation and how it's handled.

Take Brad Pitt, for example: His purported role in the alleged family drama that led to Angelina Jolie filing for divorce stands in stark contrast to his public persona as a devoted dad. Glenn Selig, a crisis management expert and founder of The Publicity Agency, tells E! News that he thinks Pitt's reputation has definitely "taken a hit" over the course of the past few months, but the damage is "not irreparable."

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"If I were advising him, I wouldn't tell him to attack [Jolie], but I would say to build himself up," says Selig. On a personal level, Pitt could "talk about his kids and the types of things he does with them…and the impact this has had on their family.

The actor began the process of building himself back up in front of a wider audience on Sunday—and Pitt certainly seems to have the support of his Hollywood peers.

During his surprise appearance at the 2017 Golden Globes, the father of six was met with uproarious applause from the audience, which included his pal and Oceans Eleven co-star Matt Damon

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Pitt, much like Damon, has made a practice of keeping his personal life private—though he obviously was never as successful at it due to his wildly famous other half. But according to Selig, it could help the actor's public image if he were to "humanize himself a little bit" and open up more than he's done in the past. 

"I would love to see people get to know him," says Selig. "You know, they know them [Pitt and Jolie] as a couple, and they know her, but they don't really know him…I don't know him, but if I met him and I thought he was a good guy and somebody who I'd want to have a beer with…I would want people to see some of that. Because when you're likable, that adds a lot; but you can't be likable as a person if you don't allow people in."

Kelly Brady, co-founder and CEO of boutique PR, marketing and branding agency Brandsway Creative, tells E! News it's important that Pitt continue "to take the high road" when it comes to his split with Jolie. "Be seen with his kids as a great dad," she adds. "Be seen working hard and wait for the dust to settle."

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The high-powered publicist, who also appeared on the 2005 MTV reality series PoweR Girls, agrees that Pitt's reputation "took a small hit, but it's nothing he can't recover from." Brady also praised the Allied star for quietly complying with authorities when he was investigated for alleged child abuse (and subsequently cleared of wrongdoing) following a reported verbal altercation he had with 15-year-old son Maddox aboard a private plane. 

"I think he handled it well," she says. "He knew he did nothing wrong, so he cooperated with the authorities and waited for the facts to emerge." 

Another crisis communications expert, 5W Public Relations founder Ronn Torossian, tells E! News he doesn't think the Brangelina divorce drama "will have any effect on the reputation of Brad Pitt" in the long run. "I do think," he adds, "that there's a…real chance that this has a real effect on the reputation of Ms. Jolie."

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"I think that she ambushed him in the press," explains Torossian. "I mean, she did a number on him in the media…This is a guy who's had great parenting, who has never before had issues—I think that it feels to me like Angelina Jolie is trying to do a hit job on him."

Jolie and Pitt's war of words is an ongoing one. According to court documents recently obtained by E! News, the exes remain at odds over Pitt's request to seal the records Jolie filed involving their temporary custody agreement. The actress claims in the filing that Pitt is insistent on sealing divorce documents because he's "terrified that the public will learn the truth." Contrarily, Pitt's lawyers have alleged that Jolie and her attorneys "exposed the children by making public the names of their therapists and other mental health professionals" and claim the actress "appears to be determined to ignore even agreed upon standards relating to the children's best interest and she is attempting to clear the way to put in the public eye any allegations she can, without regard to the impact on the minor children."

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Some public sparring is to be expected when such a high-profile couple calls it quits. "It's a breakup," says Brady. "They are never clean, it's never one sided and someone always gets hurt. [Jolie and Pitt's] breakup was shocking, and the public wants to know every detail. So much so, there is a lot of speculation and exaggerated reporting."

Jolie and Pitt's breakup at summer's end took place on the heels of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard's messy public split. In May, Heard filed for divorce citing "irreconcilable differences" and was temporarily granted a restraining order against Depp after alleging abuse and appearing in an L.A. courtroom with visible bruises on her face. By way of his lawyer, Depp vehemently denied Heard's accusations and argued the actress was "attempting to secure a premature financial resolution by alleging abuse."

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In August, less than three months after Heard filed for divorce, the actress and Depp reached a settlement out of court. The exes even released a joint statement, saying, "Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love. Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain. There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm."

Depp and Heard are still sparring, however, over the reported $7 million payout Heard planned to donate to charity, but which Depp wanted to donate directly instead of give to his ex-wife. In response to Heard's Request for Order motion, Depp's lawyer replied in a counter-file, "Her request is entirely unnecessary under the law and suggests a last-ditch effort to garner media attention and somehow further her public persona by virtue of proximity to Johnny Depp. From the inception of this dissolution Amber has sought to build a case in the court of public opinion."

If so, has she succeeded?

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Throughout all of this, Depp's public image hasn't seemed to suffer, at least not among his peers. As Torossian put it, the Pirates of the Caribbean star "is somebody that you didn't think of as squeaky clean to begin with…He's not Brad Pitt. He has a different reputation. He's a guy that's had issues."

Brady points out that Depp, who's currently shooting the true crime drama LAbyrinth, "will always have that bad boy reputation" and has a history of "passionate relationships and passionate breakups."

"I think Hollywood will forgive this very public breakup and [the] abuse allegations, especially since Amber and Johnny released the joint statement," she adds.

Torossian says he doubts the media coverage of Depp's divorce drama will have any "lasting effect" on his career. Selig agrees, telling E! News that "…given the facts the public knows, I think it's pretty much a wash. He'll come out with a movie, [and] I don't think anybody's going to stay away in light of what happened."

Brady says Depp "will not have problems being cast in films," but thinks his "corporate endorsement deals may suffer." Then again, Depp "has never really been known to be the face of products, has he?" she adds. "Either way, give it a few years and everyone will have forgotten."

It remains to be seen what moviegoers think, with the next Pirates of the Caribbean film due out in May, but Depp's personal critics have spoken. The 53-year-old movie star had been the face of Dior's Sauvage men's fragrance for almost a year when Heard filed for divorce. The release of a new campaign with the tagline "Wild at Heart" earned its share of ridicule and the continued ubiquity of his ads prompted demands for Dior to drop him.

As of now, however, Depp is still prominent on the luxury brand's website and his calendar of upcoming films remains crowded, so the actor may have long since realized that his image doesn't need as much immediate rehabilitation as some might think. And Brad Pitt probably just got that impression, too.