Will Smith’s comeback after the Oscar hiatus was expected, PR experts say

Will Smith punched Chris Rock on stage at the 2022 Oscars.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

  • A year ago this week, Will Smith beat Chris Rock to the Oscars. It has put his career in jeopardy.
  • Crisis PR experts say Smith fumbled with his initial response. But Hollywood is already welcoming him back.
  • Rock talked about “The Slap” in a comedy special this week. Experts say Smith was right not to answer.

It was the slap that was heard around the world.

While presenting the best documentary award at the 2022 Academy Awards, Chris Rock mocked the shaved head of Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith — a hairstyle she sports because of alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss.

A furious Smith responded to Rock’s laugh with physical force in front of 16.6 million viewers, shocking everyone – including Rock himself. “Will Smith just hit crap out of me,” he said in amazement.

“The Slap” quickly went viral as both viewers and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences realized the moment wasn’t part of Rock’s schtick. To further complicate the situation, Smith won the Best Actor trophy later that evening for his performance in “King Richard.”

In April Smith resigned from the Academy; the following week, following a formal disciplinary process, the Academy banned the actor from the Oscars and other events for 10 years. Some of Smith’s upcoming projects, including “Bad Boys 4” and the National Geographic nature show “Pole to Pole,” were reportedly put on hold.

Although Smith was allowed to keep his Oscar, his hard-won reputation as Hollywood’s golden boy was in tatters. Many in Hollywood wondered if he could recover from the biggest controversy of his career or if “The Slap” was a career-ender.

The answer, said several crisis PR experts in Hollywood, may not be entirely surprising.

“Hollywood always love a comeback,” said Valerie Allen, CEO of Valerie Allen Public Relations.

Pundits say Smith waited too long to apologize – but he’s now back to winning awards

For some experts, Smith’s initial response to the incident fell short. His acceptance speech for Best Actor notably left out Rock. And later that evening, at Vanity Fair’s annual Oscar party, a jubilant Smith was seen clutching his trophy, dancing and singing along to his own songs.

Smith publicly apologized to Rock in a statement released the day after the Oscars, as well as in a YouTube video he posted three months later.

“Chris, I apologize to you,” Smith said in the clip. “My behavior was unacceptable and I’ll be here when you’re ready to talk.”

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith at the 2022 Oscars, hours before “The Slap.”
Jae C. Hong/AP Photos

Both Allen and Evan Nierman, CEO of crisis PR firm Red Banyan and co-author of the forthcoming book “The Cancel Culture Curse: From Rage to Redemption in a World Gone Mad,” believe Smith should have made the video apology very before.

“That slap was all anyone in the world talked about for daysNierman said. “It would have been the right time to release a video apology and offer that apology to Chris Rock directly.”

Judging by reactions on social media, Smith may have permanently alienated some fans. But Hollywood’s crisis PR experts agree that the actor will eventually make a proper comeback.

“Will Smith has a huge bucket of goodwill in Hollywood,” Allen said. “And I think his superpower is his humanity and his humor, and I think it all works for him.”

Smith is already beginning to receive recognition again for his work. The Academy rejected “Emancipation,” the Apple TV+ drama in which he plays an escaped slave, but last month his performance won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture. Last week, he and “Emancipation” director Antoine Fuqua also accepted the African-American Film Critics Association’s Beacon Award on behalf of the film.

Smith and director Antoine Fuqua on the set of “Emancipation.”
Apple TV+

“Bad Boys 4” was officially announced as being back on track in January, with “Pole to Pole” following suit a few days later. Smith’s iMDB page currently has 13 upcoming projects listed, most of them in a producing capacity.

Nierman believes that Hollywood has a vested interest in Smith being resurrected from “permanent pariah-hood” – and not just because of his loving person.

“He’s making the studio and the directors way too much money to throw him out,” Nierman said.

An expert says Chris Rock’s decision to discuss ‘The Slap’ in his Netflix special was ‘brilliant’

In the year since the Oscars, Rock has largely refrained from discussing “The Slap” on stage. That changed on Saturday when he released his Netflix special “Selective Outrage,” which had been previously teased to show his take on the incident.

“It still hurts. I got ‘Summertime’ ringing in my ears,” Rock joked in the special. “But I’m not a victim, baby. You’ll never see me on Oprah or Gayle cry … I took it here just like Pacquiao.”

Rock said Smith’s response had more to do with his wife than him, and also responded when asked why he didn’t fight back: “Because I got parents. You know what my parents taught me? Don’t fight in front of white people. ”

Rock addressed “The Slap” in his new stand-up special that premiered last weekend.

PR experts interviewed by Insider agree that Rock’s decision to tackle “The Slap” a year later was a smart move, drawing extra attention to the special — Netflix’s first global live streaming event.

“The timing was brilliant because he gave himself a chance to think about how he will respond,” said Eileen Koch, CEO and founder of EKC PR. “It wasn’t on an emotional basis, like right after the fact, you know, and then because he wanted the best PR out of it. He waited until the Oscars. Then he gets the Netflix special and he makes millions of dollars , and he becomes the hero.”

Experts say Smith has been smart to avoid commenting on Rock’s special

With both Rock’s comedy special and the one-year anniversary of “The Slap,” the focus is on Smith this week. He has yet to respond to Rock’s special, and experts say it’s the right move.

“Having done serious damage to his personal brand with the assault, Smith risks rekindling criticism that could be seen as a vindication of his past actions, which he has now repeatedly apologized for,” Nierman said.

Experts say the best way for Smith to move forward is to focus on his work and handle his 10-year Academy ban with grace.

“While I’m sure there were things in the thesis he was upset about, if he handles it with dignity and class, maybe they could let him back in five years,” Koch said.

Smith at the European premiere of “Emancipation” in December.
Nicky J Sims/Getty Images

When the actor eventually returns to the Oscars, it likely won’t be with much fanfare. While Rock turned down an offer to host the ceremony this year, Smith has a long way to go for that kind of comeback.

“It’s hard to imagine that happening right now, but you know, people love a good redemption story,” said Nierman, who added that the hosting duties would fit with Smith’s “schtick.”

“I wouldn’t count on Will Smith and I wouldn’t bet against Will Smith as one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood,” Nierman said. “He always wanted a way to recover and redeem himself from this.”

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