R. Kelly needs to keep his mouth shut and disappear. That’s the near-unanimous feeling of the millions of people who watched Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly — and the advice most publicists and lawyers would give to the singer in the wake of even more stories of abuse, statutory rape, and brainwashing.
While other celebrities might have tried to deflect the allegations, Kelly and his team seem to be willingly heading into the storm. Timothy Savage, father of Joycelyn Savage, one of the women allegedly being held against her will by the singer, has accused Kelly’s current and former managers of threatening to ruin his life or kill him if he didn’t recant. Kelly himself partied at a Chicago club on his 52nd birthday yelling, “I don’t give a fuck what’s going on tonight!” despite the news that police in Georgia are investigating him for his purported sex cult as alleged first by BuzzFeed.
Just days earlier, someone associated with Kelly camp launched a Facebook page to discredit and smear his accuser by posting screenshots of their criminal histories, intimate text messages, and recordings of phone calls that purported to show that some of the alleged victims were gold-digging liars. The page, ”Surviving Lies,” went live two days after the documentary’s final episodes aired and was swiftly taken down for violating Facebook’s policy on “bullying or sharing other’s private contact information.” (It’s unclear who first published it, but the text exchanges were shared via photos of Kelly’s phone, showing that he sent them.) The page was resurrected and shuttered two more times, while a stand-alone website attached to this campaign, SurvivingLies.com, has yet to launch. (It’s currently registered anonymously via GoDaddy, a gross coincidence considering Kelly’s published text messages showed his allegedly brainwashed victims calling him “Daddy.”)
“When somebody is backed against the wall, they come out as aggressively as they can, but you’ve got to be smart about it,” says PR veteran Howard Bragman, who’s worked with Monica Lewinsky, Anna Kendrick, and Terrence Howard, among many others. “You’re defending your reputation, your career, possibly your freedom. You’re going to fight on every level you can.“
Evan Nierman, founder of the firm Red Banyan, agrees. “People under attack are fighting back: ‘If you’re going to hit me, I’m going to hit harder.’ It’s already proving to be ineffective. With #MeToo and #TimesUp, there’s a lot of sympathy and empathy toward victims of assault. Attacking them and victimizing them twice shouldn’t be anybody’s go-to crisis-PR strategy.”
According to several of the sources Vulture spoke with, Kelly’s team has been working on their response to the docuseries for months, while A-list PR firms are turning down hundreds of thousands of dollars to take him on as a client. “Two months ago, I received a call from a publicist whose name I can’t say. She was approached by his manager, offered her a lot of money, to represent him,” says communications advisor and radio host Dyana Williams. “She asked what I thought and I told her it would damage her reputation to have to lie and spin for him. She asked if I would help coach him and I said definitively, ‘No.’ This was two months before the dream hampton documentary. They feel very attacked. They knew this was coming. There’s also the documentary coming from the BuzzFeed piece [by writer Jim DeRogatis] so he’s going to have a lot of lawsuits.”
If Kelly has any sense, he’d be neither seen nor heard, according to the professionals. No partying, no social media, no smear campaigns. “The most legitimate strategy right now would be to go fully underground and keep things as boring as they could be,” says Erik Bernstein, vice-president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc. Richard Levick, Esq. of LEVICK says, “Don’t take each alleged victim try to pick apart their allegations. That puts a spotlight on you and makes you look even more unsympathetic. You go away. You wait for a period of time. Disappear.” Says Jo-Ann Geffen, CEO and President of Jag PR, “Don’t put more information out there that whets people’s appetites, don’t be overly defensive. And don’t give information any lawyer would advise you against. There’s no need to volunteer information that you know even hints at your guilt or innocence.“
For lawyers with clients like Kelly, the main concern isn’t repairing someone’s image. “Our job is to focus on the fact that you have an audience of 12 jurors,” says attorney Alan Jackson, who’s currently representing Kevin Spacey in the actor’s Nantucket indecent assault trial. “At the same token, you have to pay attention to the court of public opinion. It’s a challenge for any lawyer in a high-profile case. When I was on the Phil Spector case from the prosecution side, I realized very quickly that the rules of gravity stop inside the courtroom. The cameras, the publicity, the notoriety affects every single individual in that process from the judge to the jurors to the advocates to the witnesses. You have to remember that you are dealing with evidence, not opinion.”
Jackson’s advice to clients, one that Spacey obviously didn’t take when he posted that bizarre Frank Underwood Christmas video, is to have a thick skin and ignore the 24-hour news cycle. “With Twitter and Facebook, it’s a different world. There’s no possibility that you’re going to get 12 jurors who have not been touched in some way, shape, or form either by the nightly news, talk radio, or social media. Clients have to stop trying to push against the press onslaught because they’re going to lose. Their voice is not going to be loud enough to adequately defend against that. Get past it, quiet down, then batten down the hatches and figure out a defense.”
A “Surviving Lies” type of accuser-smearing defense could have even more dire consequences than just the celebrity involved losing public support over victim shaming. “Think about [Brett Kavanaugh accuser] Christine Blasey Ford. She’s getting death threats, she’s had to move three times. This is the same exact thing,” says Danny Deraney, founder of Deraney Public Relations. “Let’s say one of Kelly’s crazy fans goes out and hurts somebody or sets a house on fire or kills someone. Guess who’s going to be indicted in that? As a publicist, I would advise him not to do that but I think he’s so beyond listening.”
And why would R. Kelly start heeding this kind of advice now? For roughly three decades, it’s been well known that he has a predilection for underage women. He flaunted his relationship with Aaliyah and many other young women and his record sales haven’t suffered. His name is forever linked with the phrase “pee tape,” yet that became more of a punch line, especially after he was acquitted on all charges of making child pornography. “People cling to him being so positive and spiritual,” says Williams, who stopped playing Kelly’s music on her Philadelphia radio station two years ago. “They’re giving him passes because he did ‘I Believe I Can Fly.’ That song is played at kindergarten graduations, weddings, barbecues.” Then he comes back with 2018’s “I Admit,” the lyrics of which gloss over the pee tape, marriage to Aaliyah, pedophilia, sex slavery, just to say that he’s really a persecuted man.
In the #MeToo era, especially now that the documentary and social media amplified these stories, it’s difficult to see why Kelly would think playing victim is a viable plan. “The fact that he got acquitted on that trial probably gives him a false sense of confidence,” says attorney Lou Shapiro. “Going toe to toe with victims is only going to invite more pressure on the DA’s office to prosecute him.”
Sure, there are fans who won’t abandon Kelly because they don’t believe the allegations, or can separate the art from the artist. His label, RCA, hasn’t dropped him despite multiple petitions, though Levick says that could be due to contractual obligations and not insensitivity to public outrage (though RCA also just signed Chris Brown to a new deal). Radio stations and streaming services like Spotify and Apple still play his music.
But many longtime friends and associates are jumping ship, including past collaborators Chance the Rapper and Lady Gaga, while celebrity handlers refuse to help him. “I would be surprised if he remains signed to any label except his own,” says Levick. “All of these people who continue to support him will do it until their friends look at them and say, ‘really?’” Ross Johnson, founder of Johnson Public Relations, puts it more bluntly: “Firms who would represent him are usually mid-level ones who take on alleged sexual predators because they need the money. Then the money runs out and all of a sudden they get a conscience.”
With all the unknowns surrounding the Pied Piper of R&B’s future, the only thing for sure right now is that Surviving R. Kelly poured gasoline on a decades-old smoldering bonfire, setting the country ablaze with new allegations, potential criminal charges, and howling outrage, all in the span of a week. Will it finally be time’s up for Kelly, or will he somehow manage to beat the rap again and wait until people forgive, forget and put “Ignition” back on their playlists? Bragman, with decades of dealing with celebrity crises, sums it up perfectly.
“You never know how these things are going to end until the end,” he says. “I promise you, it’s not going to be fun. Nobody’s having fun.”