Kylie Jenner's Removal from Forbes' Billionaires List Underscores the Basic Rules of PR
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Okay, I’ll admit it – I’ve never been a Kardashian fan. I'll admit that “Momager” Kris Jenner and her offspring have achieved remarkable feats in garnering attention and revenue, two of entrepreneurship’s highest goals. But for me, the issue is the in-your-face actions the mom and her family are perpetually taking for celebrity’s sake.
Kylie Jenner’s removal from the Forbes Billionaires List (after making the magazine’s cover in March 2019 as the world’s youngest self-made billionaire at 22) is a case in point.
Granted, the family’s fame is perhaps most remarkable for the fact that it emerged on the back of tabloid headlines, Instagram popularity and reality TV. The family already had wealth and stature from the legal career of Kris’s ex, OJ Simpson attorney Robert Kardashian (now deceased) and subsequent ex-spouse and former Olympian Bruce Jenner (now Caitlyn Jenner). But there was seemingly little to account for the family's rise beyond daughter Kim's small part as a closet organizer for Paris Hilton in The Simple Life in 2003, followed by a famously stolen sex tape.
Whether you love the Kardashians or despise them, it is hard to dispute the business tenacity of any team that could sustain any program, let alone a reality TV show, for as long as Keeping Up With The Krdashians, which has been running since 2007 for 18 seasons so far.
Mom Kris has been instrumental in helping the clan’s daughters, in particular, to parlay attention from Instagram and tabloid headlines into celebrity influencer roles and brands in clothing and beauty. Youngest daughters Kendall and Kylie have achieved perhaps the most traditionally legitimate roles, with Kendall, now 24, being named the world’s most highly-paid model in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Kylie, the youngest sister, has been acclaimed as the most financially successful as the founder and owner of Kylie Cosmetics (the outgrowth of the wildly viral Kylie Lip Kits business launched in November 2015). It is the claimed revenue for Kylie Cosmetics that served as the crux of the aggressive PR bid for the Forbes billionaire ranking and record in 2019.
As an expert in public relations, I would caution anyone to follow the roadmap that the Kylie team followed. They abused the rules of PR, and it came back to haunt them.
Rule 1: Beware the things you do for attention
While gaining some form of attention and influence is a vital part of the game for most kinds of business, in my opinion, the kinds of business that exist primarily for the ability to monetize attention are treading on dangerous ground.
When you actively seek attention for things the press wouldn’t otherwise cover, you are taking a risk.
For example, in the midst of the global health crisis, I am seeing legions of companies wanting to promote themselves for doing good. “We donated masks; we’re making hand sanitizer,” they’re announcing. They want to be seen as heroes and they want the world to know. A competing agency even came forward in our own region, hoping our own “giveback” would be free PR to promote them for a campaign to do good. Um, no.
While there are myriad examples of people and companies rising to support their communities in magnificent ways, doing so for the motive of “being seen” and promoting themselves as doers of good is a risk. For every kind of PR, consider the question first of who needs and wants the information and why. If the only entity helped is you, as promotion it's a lousy reason to fill the airwaves, and it is prone to backfire as well.
As someone who’s written columns for years, I am stunned at the audacity of people who conclude interviews with remarks like, “By the way, you need to include my name in the headline because I’m trying to fight down a bad story on ABC,” or “That story needs to refer to me as a ‘leadership guru,' because I’m using it for my marketing afterwards.” Both of these conversations were finished on the spot and neither story appeared.
In contrast, the founder of a distillery that converted from premium liquors to massive production of sanitizer for medical facilities, porta-johns and community members was extremely interesting to me and to others. Why? Because he spoke candidly about the realities of regulatory restrictions on transporting ethyl alcohol in quantity and the very real vulnerabilities the business faces in determining how long the pivot should last and whether it can or should resume its former operation when the pandemic is over. These are the stories that capture the attention of readers as they show others they are not alone in their fears and inspires them with the ideas that others have used.
In the Kylie Jenner situation, her PR machine went wrong in relentlessly pitching Forbes the evidence they should consider in naming her the world’s youngest self-made billionaire. Even as a privately-held business, they offered up tax returns and normally confidential records to bolster their claims. The numbers seemed to add up and they got the press attention they were asking for. But in doing this, they broke Rule 2:
Rule 2: Beware the release of private financials
Publicly traded companies are required to disclose their financials. So if you’ve had an up quarter or down, the world will know it, and the SEC requires you report the information in a format that is available to all. This is a great move in transparency; however, in making a public company disclosure you must adhere to careful procedures ti ensure the information is in the right format and equally available to all observers at once. If you are a board member or stake holder who knows the information early, you are not allowed to trade on it or disclose it to others (as too many public figures have learned).
If you are privately held, however, while you must provide the information to your board, to the bank and to your private investors, you should seriously question the rational for sharing it with anyone else. Suppose you have a record-breaking quarter. Good for you! But if you blare it to the press and public, you have needlessly educated your competitors as well as the public you are trying to impress. Worse still, once you’ve opened the books, what will the press and public conclude when you later have a negative quarter and decline to answer the question, or wish you didn’t have to? Now the gauntlet’s been thrown, You will have to either provide the update or let the audience assume the answer you’re refusing to give is bad news.
If the reason for disclosing is to let the market know your product is exceeding expectations, why not quantify the answer in another way, such as percentage growth or units sold? Even then, consider why you’d release information that could be put up for comparison later in the seasons to come. But the Kardashian team also appears to have also violated the most fundamental rule of public relations: Never lie to the press.
Rule 3: You should never lie to the press
As reported, the PR team pressing the Kylie agenda produced tax returns to validate her company’s earnings. Sure enough, the numbers supported a business valuation of $1.2 billion, making Kylie Jenner a bona fide billionaire.
But what the PR team didn’t consider was this: Jenner is now selling the company to Coty, for $600 million. That is potentially understandable during a season in which the sales of many products have dropped. However, the information provided by Coty to its investors on the company's prior results are orders of magnitude smaller than the numbers the PR team was giving to Forbes. The new numbers not only refute the billionaire standing, they reportedly indicate the prior tax returns provided were faked.
The press reports bad news as well as good. But when a prior claim by a source is shown to be false, the press will report it with intensified fervor and the public will pounce upon it with glee. In this case, stock in the acquiring company has taken a sizable drop since the announcement. Watchers are speculating that the acquiring company may back out of the deal or even sue based on the stories of prior sales that appear to be as inflated as the founder’s plumped lips. (As background, Jenner disclosed in 2018 she had used and later removed the artificial fillers that had been widely reported by media.)
The lessons to entrepreneurs in these events should be clear. Not all attention is good attention. Not all press is good press.
Used with care, celebrity status can be fine for advancing ideas and products. For example, a notable CBS newscaster in Houston, Dominique Sachse, has won two Emmys for her coverage, but she also broadcasts her real-life beauty and fashion ideas on YouTube and Instagram to an audience of millions. Public reports estimate her income and net worth to be many millions, but she has never disclosed or marketed her worth (nor has she attempted to aggrandize her value through aggressive attempts to “be seen.”)
In every case, honest communication is vital. And putting the interests and needs of your audience and customers first is the ideal approach to getting meaningful press.