Published August 02, 2006
LOS ANGELES – Mel Gibson's Tuesday apology for an anti-Semitic rant after his drunken driving arrest came several days too late, celebrity crisis management experts say.
It was the star's first acknowledgment that he spewed anti-Jewish slurs at Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy James Mee early Friday — a tirade that could threaten his career and the December release of his film "Apocalypto," in which he and Disney invested tens of millions of dollars.
"In the first 24 hours, people start forming opinions," said Richard Levick, whose Washington firm represents several celebrity clients. "He has constantly been behind the story and needs to get out front. What he's done through actions is turned perception into reality. People presume he is anti-Semitic."
The cloud of anti-Semitism has followed Gibson since the 2004 film "The Passion of the Christ," which many Jews felt unfairly portrayed Jews' role in the death of Jesus. The issue intensified after interviews with Gibson's father, who called the Holocaust mostly "fiction."
Levick said that while the film became a blockbuster despite the controversy — or because of it — this is Gibson's last chance to prove he isn't a bigot.
"Mel Gibson has a very high trust bank with audiences," Levick said. "And that is in jeopardy. This is at a tipping point right now."
In a sign that the Gibson camp gained some ground Tuesday, several Jewish leaders offered reserved praise for Gibson's apology. They said it was an improvement over a statement Gibson issued Saturday that only vaguely referred to "despicable" remarks.
"It addresses the issue, it addresses the substance," said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "I have two caveats. One, it's another publicist statement and makes me a little bit uncomfortable because the publicist issued the statement earlier in the week. To what extent is it a true reflection of Mel Gibson's true feeling? The other issue is two years ago when we dealt with the issue of `The Passion of the Christ,' the same publicist reached out to me and told me how much Mel Gibson respects me and what kind of good guy he is, and (that) Mel Gibson wants to meet. Well, did I meet you? We never met."
The delay in having Gibson address the issue of anti-Semitism raised questions of insincerity, celebrity handler Michael Sitrick said.
"From the outside looking in," said Sitrick, whose Los Angeles firm represents such troubled clients as talk show host Rush Limbaugh, singer R. Kelly and drummer Tommy Lee. "I would've recommended that he say, `These remarks that were attributed to me do not represent my beliefs and I am embarrassed and humiliated and upset at myself if those words came out of my mouth when I was drinking."
The latest apology, released by Gibson publicist Alan Nierob, was closer to the mark, Sitrick said.
"I want to apologize to everyone in the Jewish community for the vitriolic and harmful words that I said to a law enforcement officer the night I was arrested on a DUI charge," Tuesday's statement said.
Gibson also said he had begun a recovery program and said he planned to meet with Jewish leaders "to discern the appropriate path for healing."
Media image consultant Michael Sands, however, dismissed Gibson's apology as a cynical spin falsely attributing Gibson's anti-Semitism to alcohol.
"By Mel coming out with this latest statement, he is grasping for straws," said Sands. "It seems to me he sat around with his publicist and said, `Hey, what do you think of this?'"
Veteran publicist Michael Levine, who called Gibson's public relations representatives "the best team money can buy," commended Nierob, who said Tuesday he was the only public relations professional assisting Gibson in the matter.
"Today's statement is particularly wise," Levine said. "The best defense is a good offense and the only offense is a relentless one."
The approach taken by Nierob, a vice president at stalwart publicity firm Rogers & Cowan, takes the "four principles of celebrity crisis" into account, Levine said: speed, humility, contrition and personal responsibility.
"If you go with those four things, you generally do pretty well in America," Levine said.