It’s probably fairly safe to assume that everyone’s heard of the so-called Wagatha Christie case by now. Unless, of course, you’ve been living under a rock. Or you have a far healthier relationship to reality TV than I do.
The 2019 drama, which began when Colleen Rooney outed her fellow-WAG Rebekah Vardy for selling her private Instagram stories to The Sun newspaper, quickly became a trending topic and somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. It culminated in a libel case last year, which itself became the subject of a West End musical, multiple deep-dives, and (most recently) a documentary on Disney+.
It was while watching this recent documentary that it occurred to me that the whole case – while ostensibly about fake friends, the seedy underside of celebrity, online drama, and why you can never believe everything you see on social media, can actually teach us a lot about PR…
(Yes, even the B2B stuff.)
‘It’s… Rebekah Vardy’s account’
Where were you when Colleen Rooney posted her now-infamous Instagram story?
The footballer’s wife revealed she had been conducting a top-secret sting operation to try and weed out who had been feeding her private Instagram stories to the press in October of 2019. Her method involved a series of fake posts and an account invisible to nobody except her prime suspect.
The explosive reveal post accused Rebekah Vardy of being the only person with the means to be the leak, and the press immediately ran with the dramatic story, buoyed by the emotive statements issued by the two women at the centre of the case.
Of course, most of the time when we talk about the use of PR in this case, we’re talking about showbiz, but I think that even for us B2B folk, it can teach us a lot about launching a campaign.
The PR Takeaway:
If nothing else, Colleen Rooney’s Instagram accusation highlights the importance of launching a story in the right way.
With just one post, she created a media buzz that swamped Twitter for days and led the public to christen her with a new brand – Wagatha Christie – which skyrocketed her popularity.
It’s a lesson which can be applied to any PR campaign. The language we use and the way we present a story can have a huge effect on the way it’s received. Say something bold and worth listening to – the best campaigns shift our perception and give people insight they wouldn’t find elsewhere.
‘You will have to say that you don’t speak to anyone about her’
The above quote comes directly from the trial transcript. It was the advice from Vardy’s team after the ‘Reveal Post’ was launched: deny everything.
Vardy’s team, unlike her accuser’s, failed to do any good PR. Their position was unclear, and over the course of the court case, almost every statement made was subsequently contradicted.
Take, for example, the story they spun about missing text messages. Vardy’s team claimed these important pieces of evidence had been lost as a phone had been dropped in the sea… but the text messages later appeared in court.
It didn’t just damage Vardy’s story, but also her reputation. At a time when she needed to appear trustworthy and controlled, the conflicting statements gave an impression of confusion and, more importantly, guilt.
The PR takeaway:
Briefing is vital. Ensuring that everyone in the team has the story straight before launch minimises the likelihood of muddying the waters and damaging the overall impact of your campaign.
If this court case had been a pure-PR campaign, Vardy’s team would have been guilty of failing to share a cohesive strategy. As a result, they would always lose out to a campaign with a more streamlined story and a clear central message.
For brands who aim to comment reactively on big news stories, it can help to have a bank of approved statements and positions, which can then be launched when the time is right – without losing time (and the competitive advantage) to admin and approvals. This also ensures you stay clean, concise, and on-message.
(For more on this, check out our work with cybersecurity giant Sophos!)
‘An honest and reliable witness’
The judge’s description of Rooney reflects not just her behaviour in court, but also her ability to manage her image – and mirrors the sentiment being shared by the public and press.
But what allowed Rooney to succeed where Vardy had failed? If you ask me, it’s all about the narrative, and their ways of interacting with it. Vardy began on the back foot – she needed to be reactive in order to control the narrative, but wasn’t prepared and subsequently failed to act in a strategic, aligned way.
On the other hand, Rooney could interact with key stakeholders in the case because she was confident in her position, and therefore had little to fear in the court of public opinion.
Vitally, Rooney had the credibility needed to back herself up.
The PR takeaway:
More important than even your message is your integrity.
You only need to look at the greenwashing accusations levelled at brands who promote eco-friendly products without first working on their own emissions to see that, when you’re wading into a story, you need to have your own house in order first.
And, if your brand is dragged into a story without having prepared, doubling-down on a position you can’t substantiate with evidence is going to do far more damage to your brand reputation in the long-term.
The people’s detective
Whether you liked, or even knew about, Colleen Rooney before her court case, it’s likely you’ll be aware of her new, beloved (if tongue-in-cheek) status. And that’s largely down to how well-managed her image was from the time of the initial post to the final ruling.
As PRs and brands, we can learn a lot from the way the case was handled: launch with the right angle, with a clear message, and be prepared to demonstrate authenticity and integrity. To avoid going the way of Rebekah Vardy, make sure you’re prepared if called upon to give a statement, you have a clear position, and… just don’t lie.
Don’t forget, there’s such a thing as ‘too much’ spin. Nowadays, PR is no secret. People are aware of the industry in a way they might not have been in the advertising heyday. It means that the public is far more likely to see through it when someone is being disingenuous.
On the other hand, there’s value in ‘setting the record straight’ and trusting the public. Public awareness, when handled the right way, can be a valuable tool. Just make sure that you’re approaching any public forum with authenticity, and be prepared to back-up your position with evidence – you have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.