There isn’t a big enough candelabra in the world right now for Michael Douglas to hide behind. Douglas, currently promoting his starring role as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra, shocked the world by telling a British newspaper that his throat cancer was caused by oral sex. Previously, the cancer had been attributed to smoking and drinking in Douglas’ younger days.
The story played out over multiple news cycles, first with the admission itself and then with a clumsy “clarification” by Douglas, who now maintains that he was speaking more generally about links between human papilloma virus (HPV) and certain cancers – an explanation that doesn’t quite jibe with the journalist’s audio tape of the interview. Imagine the scene chez Douglas, with a livid Catherine Zeta-Jones, the Welsh actress and Douglas’ wife, berating her husband for his loose lips, and what this implies about her.
The great shame here is not the potential cause of Douglas’ cancer, but that he missed a golden opportunity to turn an embarrassing gaffe into a cause celebré. Before his backpedaling, Douglas was being lauded by health experts and pundits the world over for openly discussing the touchy subject of HPV, considered an epidemic yet still a taboo topic because it’s sexually transmitted. Having a major celebrity recount his experience and urge HPV prevention strategies could have prompted a much-needed national conversation, but Douglas wouldn’t put his reputation where his mouth is.
THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Michael Douglas’s clumsy retraction and lost chance to redirect the story toward a good cause.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Everyone makes mistakes, but with the right PR they can be spun. As much as Douglas may not have relished becoming a spokesperson for HPV, the truth is that everyone now believes this is how his cancer was caused. By turning the blunder into a platform, Douglas could have both spun himself out of a PR mess and contributed to the greater good. If a celebrity can’t handle the truth and its consequences, perhaps it’s better for him to keep his mouth shut in the first place.