Taylor Swift†s lawyers douse an online flare-up with kerosene

A low-profile blogger questioned the pop singer’s politics—specifically an apparent leaning to the hard right—and her legal team pounced. That roused the ACLU, and a national battle arose.

Quelling an online fire is a laudable goal. Stoking it into a PR inferno denotes a major miscalculation.

Blogger Meghan Herning suggested in her post “Swiftly to the alt-right: Taylor subtly gets the lower case kkk information” that one of Taylor Swift’s latest songs and its complementing music video bear undertones of white supremacy. With that, the pop star’s lawyers took action.

In the blog, Herning writes:

Taylor’s lyrics in “Look What You Made Me Do” seem to play to the same subtle, quiet white support of a racial hierarchy. Many on the alt-right see the song as part of a “re-awakening,” in line with Trump’s rise. At one point in the accompanying music video, Taylor lords over an army of models from a podium, akin to what Hitler had in Nazis [sic] Germany. The similarities are uncanny and unsettling.

Herning calls on Swift to denounce white supremacy:

[T]here is no way to know for sure if Taylor is a Trump supporter or identifies with the white nationalist message, but her silence has not gone unnoticed.

Although a superstar might be expected to leave a blog with a modest readership alone, Swift’s lawyer William J. Briggs II called the article “malicious” in a cease-and-desist letter. In four pages of legal bluster, he asserts that Swift is not a white supremacist, denounces white supremacy and is “prepared to proceed with litigation.”

The letter further states: “Any publication, dissemination or broadcast of any portion of this letter will constitute a breach of confidence and a violation of Copyright Act. You are not authorized to publish this letter in whole or in part absent our express written authorization.”

PR Daily readers will be familiar with the Streisand effect, a phenomenon by which a celebrity exacerbates a potentially trivial matter by drawing attention to it—usually in the form of threatened legal action. If many had been unaware of the original blog post and Swift’s strange popularity among some members of the alt-right, this heated response has made them aware.

The ACLU has emerged as a potent partner, drawing a national spotlight and elevating an internet blogger to the larger conversation about press freedoms.

The ACLU states in its response:

The blog post…discusses current politics in this country, the recent rise of white supremacy, and the fact that some white supremacists have apparently embraced Ms. Swift, along with a critical interpretation of some of Ms. Swift’s music, lyrics, and videos…

The ACLU pulled no punches and left no paragraph unexamined:

Finally, the ominous paragraph at the end of your letter—warning that the letter is a “confidential legal notice,” and that “[a]ny publication, dissemination or broadcast of any portion of th[e] letter will constitute a breach of confidence and a violation of the Copyright Act”—is utter nonsense.

First, the claim of confidentiality can only be described as odd, particularly coming from a lawyer; you cannot really expect that a person who receives a letter like this will feel any duty to keep this matter a little secret between the two of you.

As for Swift herself, her new album drops Friday, and she’s slated to be the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live.” The star has been largely absent from the limelight for the past 18 months except for a high-profile sexual-assault trial and a handful of below-the-fold headlines.

However, a New York Times piece points out that Swift has been active on Tubmlr. She interacts with her fans there regularly—and on her terms.

The article states:

Even in an age of unprecedented connection between stars and their public on social media, Ms. Swift goes beyond typical interaction on Tumblr, a niche blogging platform that, with its multimedia flexibility, including images, GIFs and text posts, is conducive to obsessive fandoms. She follows some 5,000 blogs, where users can upload original creations or “re-blog” the work of others with or without adding their own two cents.

While Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have become largely promotional megaphones for the singer (outside of a few sly surprises), she has posted more than 100 times on her Tumblr since October, often re-blogging content from Swifties and adding her own commentary (typically including their first name and a string of excited emojis).

Swift’s uses the platform to convey deep appreciation for her fans—prompting some advisers to see her social media use as atypical among A-listers.

The Times continued:

Tatiana Simonian, the current head of entertainment partnerships at Tumblr, said: “She’s just not using it like a celebrity uses it,” and called Ms. Swift “a star who behaves like a fan on the platform — she’s a fan of her fans.”

By tending to her base with such bespoke dedication — and with the looming possibility of firsthand contact — Ms. Swift can breed loyalty in listeners while focusing on positive vibes only. She plucked hundreds of fans from social media to hear “Reputation” early, at Secret Sessions held at her homes in Rhode Island, Los Angeles, London and Nashville.

Her deep connection to her fans inspired a stout defense of the pop star in the blogger/ACLU case. Still, the optics are abysmal for any megabrand to dedicate its formidable resources to going after bloggers and journalists.

Here are some takeaways from Taylor’s PR roller coaster:

1. Don’t attack journalists. Don’t threaten them, nor try to intimidate them. It will backfire, and your organization will be sent scrambling to repair those damaged relations. Journalists stick together and don’t take kindly to an attack on one of their own. A better strategy is to pivot and reclaim the narrative by giving writers something else to cover.

2. Meet fans where they are. Taylor’s unique relationship with her fanbase comes from her ability to connect with them on their online turf. For Swift, that platform is Tumblr. Don’t copy her, though. Analyze where your core constituency is going, and go there with them.

3. PR silence is a risk. In the absence of promoted content, writers and bloggers can turn to more obscure sources and theories to meet their deadlines. One major tool in Taylor’s arsenal is her ability to speak for herself. By eschewing transparency in favor of opacity, Swift has to live with rampant speculation—regardless of its degree of accuracy.

How would you advise Swift to undo the damage already done?

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