Disney celebrity Vanessa Hudgens was involved in a nude photo scandal in 2007. The scandal affected the image of Hudgens as well as her employer the Walt Disney Company. Hudgens was best known for her role as an innocent young woman in the High School Musical movies, an image that was threatened by the leaked photos. Disney’s image, something the company had spent years building, was also threatened by the negative attention Hudgen’s scandal was drawing to the company.
About The Walt Disney Company
Founded in 1923, the Walt Disney Company is the “leading diversified international family entertainment and media enterprise…” (http://www.corporate.disney.go.com). More than 100,000 people are employed by the Walt Disney Company and its affiliates throughout the year, with several thousand more employed during the summer months (http://www.wdw.co.uk). Disney’s media networks revenues increased 7% in 2008 to $16.1 billion. The company’s studio revenues decreased 2% in 2008 to $7.3 billion, while its consumer product revenues were up 26% to $2.9 billion.
A company based on storytelling, the Walt Disney Company prides itself on turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, “Making dreams come true everyday is central to our global growth strategy” (http://www.corporate.disney.go.com). The Walt Disney Company is the world’s largest media conglomerate as of March 2009 (http://www.bloomberg.com). The company’s television holdings include the ABC television network and 10 broadcast stations along with a handful of cable networks including ABC Family, ESPN (80% owned) and the A&E Television Networks (37% owned). The Walt Disney Studios produces films through subsidiaries of the Walt Disney Company including Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar, Miramax and Touchstone. The Walt Disney Company also owns and operates theme parks and resorts around the world (http://www.hoovers.com).
The Walt Disney Company gears each of its projects towards children and adults alike, believing that every individual enjoys and benefits from magical experiences and childlike entertainment. Recently, Disney has been grooming what Michael Glitz (2009), author of the NY Daily News article “Disney’s teen titans – Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift – are taking over the world,” calls the “Disney-generated teen titans [who] are taking over your TV, movie screen and iPod. And just like high school’s ‘in’ crowd, they’re polished and hyperaccessorized and all date one another.” Examples of these Disney teen titans are Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers and Vanessa Hudgens.
The Walt Disney Company’s markets, audiences and publics (MAPs) consist primarily of park visitors and future visitors, but also include any child or adult touched at some point by the Disney brand, as well as stockholders and potential investors. Michael Nathanson, an analyst at Sandford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York says, “Investors want to buy large market names…it’s better to be Disney than a company that’s a third of the size like Viacom” (Nathanson, “Time Warner spinoff shuffles ranks, Disney new No.1,” 2009). Disney also works to maintain positive relations with the news media to ensure positive news coverage.
About Vanessa Hudgens
Vanessa Anne Hudgens was born on December 14, 1988 in Salinas, California to mother Gina and father Greg. She has a younger sister named Stella. Hudgens is best known for her role as Gabriella Montez in the Disney Channel Original Movie series High School Musical (http://www.disneycelebrities.com).
Hudgens became involved in musical theater at the age of eight. She acted in local productions such as Carousel, The Wizard of Oz, The King and I, The Music Man and Cinderella. Hudgens made her feature film debut in the 2003 film Thirteen and appeared in the movie Thunderbirds in 2004. Between the years of 2003 and 2006, she landed guest roles in television shows like Quintuplets, Still Standing, The Brothers Garcia, Drake & Josh, and The Suite Life of Zack & Cody (http://www.disneycelebrities.com). Because of her busy schedule, Hudgens has been home schooled since the eight grade (http://www.wikipedia.org).
Hudgens landed her breakout role as Gabriella Montez in the Disney Channel’s High School Musical made-for-television movies alongside her current boyfriend Zac Efron in 2006. That same year Hudgens signed a contract with Hollywood Records. She produced an album titled V which debuted at number 24 on the Billboard Top 200 chart in the US. In 2007, Hudgens went on tour with the Cheetah Girls to promote the album. The album became certified as Gold and was nominated as number 7 on the Billboard Readers’ Choice that same year. The album also earned Hudgens the award for Breakout Singer of the Year at the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards. (http://www.disneycelebrities.com). Hudgens has also been the spokesperson for Red by Marc Ecko, a line of sneakers, since October 2007. She also teamed up with Sears for a back-to-school marketing campaign and became the Neutrogena spokesperson (http://www.disneydreaming.com).
In the summer of 2008 Hudgens released her second album Identified on July 1st, and launched her first solo tour (http://www.wikipedia.org). She was also listed as one of People Magazine’s “100 Most Beautiful People.” Hudgens’ next movie Bandslam is set to release in summer 2009, and Hudgens will appear in the movie Sucker Punch which will be released in 2010 (http://www.disneycelebrities.com).
– Sucker Punch (2010) Pre-production – Blondie
– Bandslam (2009) – Sam
– High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008) – Gabriella Montez
– High School Musical 2 (2007) – Gabriella Montez
– The Suite Life of Zack and Cody (4 episodes, 2006) – Corrie
– Drake & Josh (2 episodes, 2006) – Penny
– High School Musical (2006) – Gabriella Montez
– Quintuplets (1 episode, 2005) – Carmen
– Thunderbirds (2004) – Tintin
– The Brothers Garcia (1 episode, 2003) – Lindsey
– Thirteen (2003) – Noel
– Robbery Homicide Division (1 episode, 2002) – Nicole
– Still Standing (1 episode, 2002) – Tiffany
About High School Musical
The Disney Channel Original Movie High School Musical (HSM) premiered on January 20, 2006. The modern mix between the movie Greece and story of Romeo and Juliet had a $5 million production budget and was watched by 7.7 million viewers on the first night it ran and 6.1 million the second time it appeared on the Disney Channel: “The Disney Channel aired High School Musical seven times within a month of its inception – gaining 26.3 million viewers in that time” (http://www.disneydreaming.com).
Before the movie aired on the Disney Channel, the Walt Disney Company released the High School Musical Soundtrack, which became the best selling soundtrack in the United States in 2006. To promote the soundtrack, Disney asked the popular boy band B5 to record a version of the album’s hit song “Get’cha Head In The Game.” There were free downloads of some of the songs available online as promotion, as well as a High School Musical media player that users could email to their friends so they could enjoy songs from the movie on their computer (http://www.disneydreaming.com).
The HSM movie gained momentum through the word of mouth of their target audience. The Walt Disney Company heavily promoted the Disney Channel Original Movie on the Disney Channel and on the Disney Channel website. When HSM was released to DVD 1.2 million copies were sold in six days, making it the fastest selling television movie of all time. The movie also received numerous awards including Teen Choice Awards, Billboard Music Awards, American Music Awards, Emmy Awards, a Satellite Award, and a Television Critics Association Award (http://www.disneydreaming.com).
High School Musical has been referred to as “a classic style Disney musical” by Plugged Online, which pointed to the films obvious lack of sexual content as a reason for this: “Although there is an obvious attraction sparked between the movie’s leads, there are never any unseemly actions or innuendo. The costuming and dancing are strictly high school musical, not Las Vegas sensual, unlike so many ‘more mature’ onscreen musicals these days” (http://www.pluggedonline.com).
Later in 2006, the stars from HSM, minus Zac Efron (who did not sing in the first HSM), went on tour for High School Musical: The Concert, while in 2007 Disney teamed up with Feld Entertainment to launch High School Musical: The Ice Tour (Hill, “When it comes to Disney’s Vanessa Hudgens problem, no new nudes is good news,” n.d.). Before High School Musical 2 (HSM2) premiered on the Disney Channel on August 17, 2007 the original High School Musical had already sold 7.8 million DVDs, 7 million CDs, 4.5 million books, sold out a 45-city concert tour, and made hundreds of millions of dollars in merchandise sales (Dumenco, “Coming to this column: Singing, dancing, profits!,” 2007). The second HSM movie brought in 17.2 million viewers, which made it both the most watched basic cable movie of all time, and the most watched basic cable showing ever (http://www.disneydreaming.com). The HSM2 soundtrack debuted at number 1 on national album sale charts (Lugmar, “Disney backs star after her apology for nude photo,” 2007), and the movie came to DVD on December 11, 2007 (http://www.wikipedia.org).
High School Musical 3: Senior Year (HSM3) hit the big screen on October 24, 2008, grossing $42 million in the US and $40 million overseas on its opening weekend “breaking the record for the largest opening weekend for a musical film” (http://www.wikipedia.org). In total the movie grossed over $251 million for the Walt Disney Company. HSM3 was released to DVD on February 17, 2009 (Redwine, “High School Musical 3: Senior Year – DVD Release Date,” n.d.). The film was named Best Movie at the Kids’ Choice Awards on March 28, 2009 (Rollo, “‘High School Musical 3’ named best movie,” 2009).
To promote all three High School Musical movies, Disney has released video games, books, jewelry, posters, cardboard stand ups, backpacks, school supplies, and a soundtrack for each movie. Laura Martin of Soleil-Media Metrics told the New York Post that her company estimated High School Musical contributed $1 billion to the Walt Disney Company in profits since its beginning in 2006 (Dumenco, “Coming to this column: Singing, dancing, profits!” 2007). Times Online reporter Chris Ayres says about High School Musical: “The show, like Walt Disney itself, is as wholesome as children’s entertainment gets: one of the reasons it has become such a cultural phenomenon” (http://www.timesonline.co.uk).
The cast of HSM included many stars that are still employed by the Walt Disney Company. The main cast of the movie included:
Zac Efron – Troy Bolton
Vanessa Hudgens – Gabriella Montez
Ashley Tisdale – Sharpay Evans
Lucas Grabeel – Ryan Evans
Corbin Bleu – Chad Danforth
Monique Coleman – Taylor McKessie
Bart Johnson – Coach Jack Bolton
Alyson Reed – Ms. Darbus
Olesya Rulin – Kelsi Nielsen
Chris Warren Jr. – Zeke Baylor
Ryne Sanborn – Jason Cross
KayCee Stroh – Martha Cox
Matt Prokop – Jimmie Zara
Justin Martin – Donny Dion
Jemma McKenzie-Brown – Tiara Gold
In an interview, Vanessa Hudgens told Extra, “I totally love it because there are people out there doing the wrong things and making the wrong decisions…I love being able to be the good one and set good examples” (http://www.extratv.warnerbros.com). That was before her crisis hit. On August 31, 2007, the National Enquirer newspaper reported that Disney’s Hudgens had taken both nude and scantily clad photos of herself which they were going to publish in an upcoming issue. The National Enquirer reported two different stories. The first story was that Hudgens had taken the pictures of herself as a surprise for her then and now boyfriend and HSM co-star Zac Efron (http://www.nationalledger.com). Numerous blogs criticized the story, giving it more legs than was expected. Blogs even speculated that Zac might have taken the photo himself as a publicity stunt for the couple (http://www.gossip.about.com). The second story presented by the National Enquirer was that Hudgens had taken the nude photo in January of 2004 and sent it to her boyfriend at the time Adam O’Neal. This would have made Hudgens 15 when the picture was taken (Hill, “When it comes to Disney’s Vanessa Hudgens problem, no new nudes is good news,” n.d.).
The scandal hit full force on September 6, 2007 while Hudgens was touring Australia with Zac during the promotion of his movie Hairspray (Jones, “Fans back Vanessa Hudgens over nude picture,” 2007). PerezHilton.com was one of the first sites to leak the photo (http://www.seventeen.com), which Extra said was obtained illegally (http://www.extratv.warnerbros.com). Scott Goldberg wrote in the article “Vanessa Hudgens days at Disney numbered?” that “When the photos surfaced, the initial reaction was one of doubt in their authenticity,” however this did not last long (http://www.dmwmedia.com). Vanessa Hudgen’s publicist, Jill Fritzo, responded on the 6th, stating that the pictures were “taken privately. It is a personal matter and it is unfortunate that this has become public” (http://www.people.com). Hudgens seemed to have taken the photos in her bedroom, both in the buff and in skimpy lingerie.
While numerous magazines, including US and People, reported in their weekly editions that the Walt Disney Company was faced with the Vanessa Hudgens nude photo scandal, the blogosphere was where the crisis gained and kept the most legs and momentum. Blogs contemplated whether the pictures were a planned career move by Hudgens to get away from her good girl roles (http://www.buddytv.com), however with HSM3 still in talks this option seemed unlikely. Blogs also compared the scandal to the fall of Britney Spears (http://www.buddytv.com), making the future for Hudgens seem grim. A week into the crisis, blog sites began speculating that the pictures may have been meant for Nickelodeon star Drake Bell, who starred in the hit show Drake & Josh.
To make matters worse for Hudgens’ reputation, Joe Francis, owner of Girls Gone Wild, extended an offer to Vanessa of $500,000 to join the GGW team (Santiago, “Disney reacts to Vanessa Hudgens nude photo,” 2007). Francis said, “‘Vanessa Hudgens is the classic girl next door gone wild. Being sexual is not a crime. She took a picture…it was leaked, and now it is time to move forward with her career’” (http://www.buddytv.com).
And then came the next blow to Hudgens’ career. A second set of photos were rumored to have been found. Blogs and magazines all questioned how the Walt Disney Company would react to these second set of photos, as they had yet to react to the first grouping. It seemed apparent that the company was only willing to forgive one mistake, but another equally bad mistake would not be tolerated, especially with High School Musical 3 in the works. However, it turned out that the second set of photos that surfaced were much tamer than was expected. Both the National Enquirer and TMZ.com, which were both riding this scandal out from the beginning, realized that the second set of photos did not have much potential and they let the story fade away (Hill, “When it comes to Disney’s Vanessa Hudgens problem, no new nudes is good news,” n.d.). The pictures “just showed Vanessa with a bunch of her female friends, obviously camping it up for the camera” (Hill, “When it comes to Disney’s Vanessa Hudgens problem, no new nudes is good news,” n.d.). One picture showed “Hudgens touching tongues and grabbing breasts with a female friend” (http://www.machinist.salon.com).
A HSM movie insider said of Disney’s High School Musical, “‘It’s a kids’ show, aimed at children, teenagers and their parents and starring a bunch of cute, wholesome youngsters. Naked pictures would be catastrophic. It could bring the whole High School Musical franchise to its knees,” (http://www.nationalledger.com) and having magazines, blogs and the Girls Gone Wild founder give the photo story legs did not help either. Not only was Hudgens’ image on the line, but so was the Walt Disney Company’s long-worked for, branded image of responsible, kid-friendly movies, television shows, and of course, celebrities, making this a crisis for both Hudgens and Disney.
Initial Reactions To The Crisis
Goldberg says, “There’s little doubt that the show’s core audience – young females – is aware of the situation as several studies have been published recently telling of the segment’s interest and active consumption of celebrity magazines like People and Us, as well as popular internet sites like TMZ. It’s not only the parents of the children Disney is worried about in other words” (Goldberg, “Vanessa Hudgens days at Disney numbered?” 2007). Parents and children alike heard about and followed the Vanessa Hudgens naked photo scandal. Not surprisingly, many fans supported her, while many others were angered that she had acted as a bad role model (http://www.extratv.warnerbros.com).
There was no parent-organized protest against Hudgens (http://www.machinist.salon.com), which may have led to the Walt Disney Company’s final decision on whether or not to let Hudgens reprise her role as Gabriella in HSM3. It was rumored that Disney was deciding between Hudgens reprising the role or instead offering the part to Cheetah Girl star Adrienne Bailon. To this, the Associated Press asked, “How would parents explain to the show’s young fans that the old Gabriella was replaced by another actress?” (http://www.khou.com).
Many parents spoke up about this issue as well. When asked about the Hudgens scandal by the Associated Press Michele Smith of Westborough, Massachusetts said, “That’s her private life, not her public life. That picture got leaked by somebody who broke trust with her. If Hudgens is not in the movie, my [8-year-old] daughter would not be so excited to see it” (http://www.khou.com). Luigi Lugmayr said, “Dropping her from future movies or other ‘High School Musical’ projects would not only be unfair to Hudgens but to fans…” (Lugmayr, “Disney backs star after her apology for nude photo,” 2007).
There were, however, parents and children alike who were disappointed in Hudgens’ actions. One mother in California said, “‘I’m devastated because I have an 8-year-old for which I now have to have an explanation…She’s always looked at this character as a very smart and proper young lady’” (Lugmayr, “Disney backs star after her apology for nude photo,” 2007). A young fan even wrote on to Hudgens online stating, “‘Vanessa I understand ur [sic] an adult but still that was pretty messed up u shouldn’t have exposed urself [sic] like that’” (http://www.news.com.au). As mentioned earlier, numerous blogs followed the crisis from beginning to its end, one even stated, “Sure, we expected that they’d [young stars] eventually grow up and self-destruct…But now Hollywood and the entertainment media have sped up the process: we want our baby-faced stars dark and dirty now, while they’re still young” (Dumenco, “Could 455 million ‘High School Musical’ viewers be wrong?” 2008).
Character of The Organization’s Communication
Vanessa Hudgens was first alerted about the photos by her manager, she said, “We heard some story was going to break in the tabloids, and I was like What?!? A few days later, the picture came out while I was on vacation in Australia. Thank God, I wasn’t home – it would have sucked if I was at home. So I got to be away from L.A. for about a millisecond. But when I came back, it got kind of crazy” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com). Once Hudgens’ publicist Fritzo confirmed that it was in fact Hudgens in the pictures, an initial decision by Disney was to order Hudgens to back out of her long-scheduled, upcoming appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno in an attempt to avoid giving the story any more national legs than it would gain on its own (Hill, “When it comes to Disney’s Vanessa Hudgens problem, no new nudes is good news,” n.d.). Disney also asked Hudgens to keep a low profile until the release of High School Musical 2: Extended Edition DVD on December 11, 2007 (Hill, “When it comes to Disney’s Vanessa Hudgens problem, no new nudes is good news,” n.d.). However, during the initial days of the scandal, perhaps before Hudgens realized its intensity, she toured Australia with boyfriend Zac as he promoted his movie Hairspray (http://www.news.com.au).
Fishman (1999) states that “Barton (1993) has defined a crisis as a situation characterized by (1) surprise (2) a high threat to important values and (3) requiring a short decision time” (p.347). Fishman continues to list five key characteristics of a crisis:
2. Important values of the organization are threatened
3. The “intention” of an actor or an organization plays a minor role in the analysis of the crisis
4. It proves to be a time sensitive situation
5. Involves a dynamic or multi-dimensional set of relationships within an environment that is changing rapidly
(Fishman, 1999, p.347)
The Walt Disney Company had no way of knowing that this scandal would occur, leaving them surprised when the photos of Hudgens surfaced. In addition, these photos threatened the image of the Walt Disney Company of kid-safe and family-friendly, and in line with what Fishman discusses, there was only a short window of time for the company to act in before the scandal got out of hand. These characteristics are what label Vanessa Hudgens’ photo scandal a crisis for the Walt Disney Company. In addition, it made things harder for both Hudgens and Disney to be trying to repair their reputations simultaneously, as they had to work together but separately at the same time to ensure their business relationship could continue in a positive manner in both the eyes of the company and the eyes of the public.
Disney remained quite until September 7th, which is when the rumors about the company’s contemplation about whether to keep Hudgens or to cast Adrienne Bailon in HSM3 instead became public (http://www.extratv.warnerbros.com). Disney may have kept a low profile to gage public reaction to the photo scandal before coming forward with a statement. In addition, soon after the initial photos were released it became clear that there was a second set of photos, and Disney wanted to see what those depicted before making a public statement. Both Disney and Hudgens nervously awaited the second set of photos as they were described as “experimental” before they were published (http://www.dmwmedia.com).
Hudgens’ publicist was the first to respond to verify the authenticity of the original photos, and also responded quickly about the overall scandal, making clear that she would not answer any questions about how Hudgens’ photos were taken, or how it reached the Internet (http://www.dmwmedia.com). The National Enquirer continued to run with the story that the pictures were taken for ex-boyfriend Adam O’Neal. They ran quotes from Adam including the following:
“‘She said she wanted to be friends with me, and she was sending me a picture…Up came the picture on the computer and I realized I was looking at Vanessa – standing stark naked and looking right at me. I’d never seen her in the nude before, but I recognized the background. The picture was taken in her bedroom, and she must have taken it with a camera sitting on the dresser and set on a timer. I was so shocked I couldn’t think of anything to say. I just messaged back ‘Thank You!’”(http://www.popdirt.com).
As for the second story that the pictures were intended for actor Drake Bell, Bell’s rep quickly released a statement declaring that Bell had never received the photos (http://www.television.gearlive.com).
As far as the Walt Disney Company was concerned, as soon as it found out that the pictures were not recent, and were in fact taken a number of years ago, an unnamed official said, “It’s great news for us that this picture is over three years old. That means that Hudgens didn’t take a nude photo of herself while she was working on any of our ‘High School Musical’ movies. That means that this scandal can’t really be tied back to the Walt Disney Company, the Disney Channel or Zac Efron. We’re all off the hook now. Everyone except Ms. Hudgens, of course” (Hill, “When it comes to Disney’s Vanessa Hudgens problem, no new nudes is good news,” n.d.). This statement was released before the Walt Disney Company released an official statement. Disney may have used this as a way to alert the public to its non-involvement in the issue, and to gauge how fans and the media would react to the news that Disney was not linking itself to the issue, and not taking the issue so seriously that it would not include Hudgens in any of its future movies. This could also have been a statement unapproved by Disney that a representative of the company let leak.
Crisis communication entails communication between an organization and its publics before, during and after the crisis occurs. While Disney only spoke once officially about the crisis, Hudgens was in the media spotlight before, during and after the crisis as an actor and as an important aspect in the sale of movies for the Walt Disney Company. At the same time that the statement from the unnamed Disney official came to the forefront, Hudgens began releasing statements to numerous media outlets. She said that she was “‘embarrassed over the situation and regret having ever taken these photos. I am thankful for the support of my family and friends’” (http://www.dmwmedia.com). She also apologized to fans by saying she was “sorry” (http://www.machinist.salon.com) and waited along with the rest of the population for the decision from Disney about her reprise of her role in HSM3. Hudgens appeared in magazine interviews, on radio talk shows, and later on television talk shows to perform damage control for her affected image.
Disney had numerous options. They could include Hudgens in the film and ignore the situation since it was no longer linked to the time frame in which they employed Hudgens. They could also choose to show the public that they stood firmly against the actions taken by Hudgens and refuse to allow Hudgens to be part of their team any longer. Or the company could take a middle ground, perhaps lowering her pay in HSM3, or publicly criticizing her for her actions.
Disney chose to release a carefully worded statement to show the public that while Hudgens would be invited back to HSM3 they did not fully support the star (Santiago, “Disney reacts to Vanessa Hudgens nude photo,” 2007). Disney’s statement was given by Disney Channel spokeswoman Patti McTeague and was as follows: “‘Vanessa has apologized for what was obviously a lapse in judgment. We hope she’s learned a valuable lesson’” (http://www.dmwmedia.com). The Walt Disney Company chose to use a Disney Channel spokesperson rather than someone directly from the Walt Disney Company as a way of distancing themselves, even slightly, from the scandal.
In terms of William Benoit’s Image Restoration Strategies (Millar & Heath, 2004) Hudgens went straight for the mortification strategy, meaning she apologized immediately. In order for Image Restoration Strategies to be used “an act must be considered offensive by a relevant audience or audiences for image to be threatened. Second, damage to image requires that the accused be held responsible for the offensive act by the relevant audience(s)” (Benoit in Millar & Heath, 2004, p.262). Disney saw its image being threatened by Hudgens’ actions, and, therefore, took a denial approach. Rather than taking the heat for the scandal, the Walt Disney Company attempted to, and succeeded in shifting the blame to Hudgens. This was made possible by the fact that Hudgens was not part of Disney’s team when the photos were taken.
Keith Herit (1994) writes about communication strategies in organizational apologia in his article “Apologies and Public Relations Crisis at Chrysler, Toshiba, and Volvo.” The Walt Disney Company used the disassociation strategy Individual/Group Bifurcation: “Some organizations expatiate their guilt by attempting to scapegoat others – one way corporations do this is by using an individual/group dissociation to claim that individuals who acted without organizational sanction are responsible for the wrongdoing” (Herit, 1994, p.119). Disney made clear that while Hudgens was currently a member of their team, and a star in their movies, she was an individual and her lapse in judgement should not affect the Walt Disney Company as a whole.
While Disney seemed disappointed by Hudgens on the outside, blogs following the story reported that Disney rewarded Hudgens for her scandalous behavior. As it turned out, stocks for the Walt Disney Company rose sharply during the crisis (Ayres, “Could nude pictures of Vanessa Hudgens sink Disney’s billion-dollar franchise,” 2008). Whether initiated by Disney, or by Hudgens’ agent, Hudgens was given a raise for bringing publicity to the Walt Disney Company (Santiago, “Disney reacts to Vanessa Hudgens nude photo,” 2007). While there are no facts given by the Walt Disney Company as to why stocks rose or why Hudgens received a raise, numerous online sources including popular blogs TMZ.com and Perezhilton.com argued that this was most likely due to her naked photos receiving media attention for the Walt Disney Company.
The scandal still haunted Hudgens in January 2008 when she was interviewed by Seventeen Magazine. Hudgens made clear in the interview that she did not like talking about the topic, but the interviewer was not going to back down. When asked about how she was currently feeling about the scandal, Hudgens made another apology, stating,
“I’m much better now. But truthfully I don’t like talking about it. It was something that was meant to be private, and even though it isn’t anymore, I’d still like to keep it as private as I can. It was very traumatic, and I am extremely upset it happened. I hope all my fans can learn from my mistakes and make smart decisions. But I wouldn’t have been able to get through it if it wasn’t for my family, friends, and fans who supported me along the way” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com).
How Effective Was The Crisis Response?
Micheal Levine, a Hollywood image consultant and author of 18 books, said from the beginning of the crisis, “‘What they [Disney] shouldn’t do is make a bigger deal out of it than is necessary’” (Ayres, “Could nude pictures of Vanessa Hudgens sink Disney’s billion-dollar franchise,” 2008). Everyone knew from the start how damaging not including Hudgens in the third High School Musical installment would be to the company’s revenue stream. Young fans would not understand why Hudgens’ character had been replaced by lesser known Disney star Adrienne Bailon.
It is important that Hudgens’ publicist admitted that the picture was in fact of Hudgens. Otherwise, speculation, especially online, could have continued for weeks or months and, in the end, when it was finally admitted that it was Hudgens’, she would have to face the public and the news media with her head held between her legs. Disney would also have had to deal with the negative coverage for a longer period of time and with HSM2 coming out on DVD and HSM3 in the works, this was not a good time for negative opinions of the Walt Disney Company in the news media.
It is clear that Disney profited from the crisis. By keeping a low profile, and allowing all of the blame to be placed on Hudgens herself, Disney was able to ride out the crisis publicity with its head above the water. By not constantly commenting and punishing Hudgens, Disney was able to “effectively [turn] the picture into a non-issue” (http://www.buddytv.com). If Disney had decided to not back Hudgens “not wanting the company’s name associated with anything not G-rated, they would have run the risk of upsetting a formula that made the company millions upon millions of dollars” (http://www.khou.com).
Hudgens most likely had a strong public relations team that understood that continuous two-way communication can lessen the severity of a crisis. While Disney only publicly commented one time, Hudgens was constantly releasing statements to the media, even months after the scandal. She apologized each time, thanked her fans for sticking by her side, and constantly stated how embarrassed she was. While the technology of the Internet helped the crisis news travel faster, it also helped Hudgens’ apology travel just as quickly. It was helpful for Disney to ask Hudgens to avoid television appearances at the beginning of the crisis. This helped any quotes from the actress be carefully crafted and edited before being released to magazines and the press. Once Hudgens became aware of which questions were asked most frequently during her time with the media, she was more prepared to do television interviews where she could memorize what she would say before she arrived in order to quickly contain any questions that would bring her crisis to the forefront again.
Hudgens and her Public Relations team participated in the 5 stages of a crisis: detection, prevention/preparation, containment, recovery, and learning (Fearn-Banks, 2007, p.10). Hudgens’ manager first detected and alerted Hudgens to the news that a story was going to break in the media. She and her team prepared for the scandal to hit, then began releasing numerous apologies to media outlets to relay to fans, in turn containing the crisis and making the news media an intervening public in the crisis. Hudgens continued to travel to different news companies to recover from the crisis, constantly apologizing and admitting fault, and making clear that she learned from her mistake and hoped her fans would do the same. It is also clear that the Walt Disney Company took Hudgens’ scandal as a prodrome for similar crises in the future, as they quickly put out the fire when scandalous pictures of Miley Cyrus and Adrienne Bailon, both Disney celebrities, surfaced not long ago.
It is difficult to say if the Walt Disney Company should have said more about the Vanessa Hudgens crisis. Disney was able to distance itself from the scandal by placing the blame solely on Hudgens, and, in turn, was able to use her without backlash for the third installment of High School Musical. Hudgens continues to be an important part of the Disney culture today, still appearing on High School Musical branded products and still singing on the Hollywood Records label, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company. It is possible that if Disney had made a bigger deal out of the scandal they would have negatively impacted their image. By only minimally commenting on the crisis, Disney contained the negative media pointed at the company and was able to dismiss it and get the media to do the same. By not blowing the scandal out of proportion, Disney also gave Hudgens the chance to make the crisis go away sooner than she otherwise would have been able to.
Kathleen Fearn-Banks states in her book Crisis Communications; A Casebook Approach, that “In a crisis, the public perceives truth to be whatever public opinion is,” (Fearn-Banks, 2007, p.15), meaning that the more sources on the Internet reported that fans were supporting the HSM star, the more the general public began to believe the crisis was a non-issue. In addition, the Internet and contemporary culture as a whole has desensitized us to nudity, and as BuddyTv.com states, “The only major shock comes from the fact that Hudgens is connected to Disney, a family-friendly organization.” If the picture had been of anyone not associated with the Disney brand, the public would not have latched onto the story so tightly and it would have ended much sooner than it did. As it is, Disney obviously has a strong understanding of public relations, knowing when and how to respond, and when to stop talking. Both the Walt Disney Company and Vanessa Hudgens efficiently and effectively contained the crisis and now, two years later, hardly anybody remembers it happened.
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