Despite the Odds, Kathy Griffin’s Press Conference Worked. Here’s Why.
Normally we advise against press conferences for crises. “Pressers” can be chaotic and too hard to control. Better to issue a statement or give one-on-one interviews. So when we heard that comedian Kathy Griffin would use a press conference to address the uproar over her photo in which she held what appeared to be the bloody, severed head of President Donald Trump, we predicted disaster. And yet, while Griffin isn’t out of the woods by any means, her appearance was, overall, fairly successful. It’s worth exploring why.
Griffin posted the photo last week on Twitter and Instagram. The backlash came immediately. The comedian took down the photo and tweeted, “I am sorry. I went too far. I was wrong.” She attached a video of her apologizing in similarly straightforward terms — much more straightforward than a typical corporate apology (“The image is too disturbing. I understand how it affects people. It wasn’t funny. I get it”).
But the piling on continued. Trump tweeted that Griffin should be ashamed of herself and that his 11-year-old son was particularly upset by the photo. First Lady Melania Trump called it “very disturbing.” Donald Trump Jr. called for Griffin to be fired from CNN, where she co-hosts the New Year’s Eve broadcast with Anderson Cooper (who tweeted that the photo was “disgusting and completely inappropriate”).
The next day, in fact, CNN did fire her. And at her press conference two days later, Griffin said about five of her scheduled “concerts” had already been canceled due to the flap. “I don’t think I will have a career after this,” she said.
As the backlash continued, Griffin and her attorney, Lisa Bloom, announced the presser. Our trepidation increased when it leaked that they would take a tough stance toward the Trumps. Accepting responsibility and then immediately blaming others tends to keep a negative story moving along (ask Hillary Clinton).
Control: Bloom maintained control of the proceedings. She started with her own statement, then invited Griffin to speak. When reporters started lobbing questions at the comedian (who, admittedly, invited them to), the lawyer stepped in and said Griffin would first make a statement. When it came time for questions, Bloom was the one to call on the reporters. At about the 30-minute mark, she announced it was time for the last question. And at the end, she thanked everyone for coming.
Context: The press conference gave Griffin an opportunity to put the photo in context. It seems most people took it as an endorsement of presidential assassination. But Griffin insisted she was addressing an incident from the first Republican presidential debate back in August. Moderator Megyn Kelly, then with Fox News, accused Trump of being a misogynist. Trump famously later commented on CNN about Kelly: “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” The photo “was a parody of Trump’s own sexist remarks,” Bloom said.
Toward the end of the press conference, in response to a question, Griffin recounted how the picture came to be. It was made at the end of a session with photographer Tyler Shields, known for his edgy work. Griffin had to send an assistant out to buy a Trump mask. “We put about five minutes of thought into this,” she said. “I apologize. I really screwed up.” (Griffin spent the presser alternating between cracking jokes and crying.)
Defiance: It’s pretty obvious that the purpose of the press conference was for Griffin to fight for her career and to show that she wouldn’t be bullied by Trump. “It’s quite clear to me that they’re trying to use me as a distraction,” Griffin said. “And I’m not going to be collateral damage for this fool.”
The press conference allowed Griffin to tell her side of the story. We’re willing to bet she garnered some sympathy, even if not everyone bought her explanation. But she did lay out a plausible account, and, at this point, that may be all that’s necessary to begin to turn the tide.
Photo Credit: Flatiron Books
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