Crisis Lessons From Will Smith’s New Flick, ‘The Slap’

Thom Weidlich 03.31.22


The bizarre and now-infamous incident from Sunday’s Academy Awards in which actor Will Smith slapped comedian and award presenter Chris Rock features some lessons for crisis communicators. Let’s review the new production.

First, a quick plot summary: Rock cracked an offensive joke about Smith’s wife, actor Jada Pinkett Smith, specifically about her medical condition, alopecia, which causes hair loss. Hubby then ran up on stage and slapped the comedian. He returned to his seat, where he yelled profanity-laced comments at Rock such as “keep my wife’s name out of your [blankety-blank] mouth.”

Some thoughts related to crisis communications:

  • No warning. Many, though not all, crises arrive with no warning. The slap is an example of how people, organizations and companies must be prepared to respond to the unexpected.


  • Scenario planning. One way to do that is to consider not only crisis scenarios related to your industry (e.g., factory fires for manufacturers), but also unlikely ones. While shocking, this scenario wasn’t so unimaginable: The conduct standards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, presenter of the Oscars, prohibit “physical conduct that is uninvited.”


  • Confused information. The episode demonstrated the typical confusion at the onset of a crisis. Many observers thought it might have been staged — part of the show — but Smith’s rant once he sat back down made it clear to most that the dustup was real.


  • Ready response. Deciding how to respond to a crisis isn’t easy. At first the reporting was that the producers did nothing because they couldn’t decide on a course of action. Yesterday the academy said in a statement that it had asked Smith (pictured) to leave but he refused. It also said it “could have handled the situation differently.”


  • Rights and wrongs. Sometimes the response decision is hard because the morality is complicated. Rock told a joke, reportedly ad-libbed, poking fun at someone’s medical condition, which was wrong, and Smith acted criminally by assaulting him. But many found themselves sympathetic to Smith, who during his acceptance speech said he was defending his family, which drew a standing ovation.


  • Also during his acceptance speech, Smith apologized to the academy and his fellow nominees, but not to his target, Rock. The next day on Instagram he issued another apology in which he did mention the comedian: “I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong.” But an important mantra of crisis communications is to get an apology right the first time, so you don’t have to issue a series of mea culpas. You shouldn’t have to be reminded to apologize to the party you’ve directly wronged.


In its statement yesterday, the academy said it had initiated disciplinary proceedings against Smith. He could be suspended from or thrown out of the academy.

Photo Credit: Featureflash Photo Agency/Shutterstock

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