Why It’s Wrong For Brands To Get Involved In Depp V Heard

This article first appeared on PRWeek News, where I was so grateful to contribute!

It’s the trial of the century and one we can’t avoid, not even for want of trying. As Johnny Depp sues ex-wife Amber Heard for defamation (and she retaliates with a counterclaim), the whole world has watched with intensity as years’ worth of abuse allegations unfold in front of our eyes.

It’s not gone, however, as we perhaps thought it might have. In likely thanks to Amber’s over-exaggerated demeanour and her VERY questionable legal representation, the whole thing has turned into a little bit of a comedy show. Sketches, TikTok edits and Twitter jokes currently exist in abundance, which is crazy considering this is quite literally the basis of a brutal domestic abuse case.

Whether you are team Depp, team Heard, neither or both, it’s worth taking a step back to think that there is at least one victim of assault here, perhaps two. With this in mind, whilst this trial has become the butt of many jokes, is there ever a place for a brand to get involved?

Duo Lingo, who this blog is usually such a fan of, have raised my eyebrows in the last week, and sadly, not for the right reasons.

The brand, that’s known for being very active and vocal on TikTok, commented on a popular video of Amber, asking if she watches the videos (specifically, those taking a jab at her behaviour). On the surface it looks pretty harmless, and maybe it is, but whether you believe Heard or not – this is still a business weighing in on a trial rooted in domestic violent claims, and that’ll never sit right with me.

Plus, it’s not about the people involved, it’s about the overall principle. Does the circus that this trial has become undermine other victims under similar circumstances? Though I appreciate a bold brand that likes to break the boundaries, this unfortunately is a step too far for me.

And I’m not alone in this view, it would seem. Naturally there’s plenty of support for Duo Lingo’s comment, with it racking up thousands of likes in hours and many comments too. But there’s also opposers too, who’ve taken to Twitter to vocalise their disdain. One of the most prominent examples of this is a tweet by Chris Harihar, who was actually the user that brought my attention to this fiasco in the first place.

For me, Harihar hits the nail on the head. We can’t control the way people will react to an event on social media, but as PRs or brand owners, we can manage whether we get involved ourselves. And in this situation, the answer seems all but simple to me: we don’t.

Though the proceedings are being treated like a TV series, that doesn’t leave it an open opportunity to newsjack. In PR, we have to be sensitive to what’s appropriate to weigh in on, and what isn’t. Despite this trial unfolding into somewhat of a farce, that isn’t a hall pass to get involved for fun. In my opinion, businesses ought to remember that on the face of it, this is a domestic violence case. It wouldn’t be acceptable to joke about this in any other format; and it isn’t acceptable now.

I think that if you believe Amber’s allegations, then this kind of behaviour seriously discredits a victim’s experience. If you side with Johnny, then jokes and jests surely undermine his suffering of abuse? Or, if like me you sit on the fence and aren’t sure either way, then surely you can agree that regardless, brands bantering around a trial that’s underpinned by claims of domestic violence just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

It’s not always wrong to get involved in trending topics, even if it’s not strictly relevant to a business. For example, Duo Lingo are known for their quirky and creative TikTok endeavours, as are brands such as Innocent and Ryanair, and this has become part of their brand in and of itself. However, let’s choose something a little more light hearted shall we?

A better example of this kind of newsjacking done right is Butterkist’s sketch of their popcorn in the hands of attendees of the nationally notorious ‘Wagatha Cristie’ trial that’s also unfolding as we speak. This is a case that’s not really hurting anyone. In reality, it’s become a bit of a joke by default and I’m fairly certain the parties involved know that too. All that lies beneath the service of the allegations on trial is a bit of bitchiness, which many of us have been impartial to at some point; you can see the striking difference when you compare the context to the Depp v Heard debacle.

In PR, it’s all about picking out the right moment, and for me, this just isn’t one of them.

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