You don’t have to be an avid reality TV fan to know about the drama-fueled breakup that shook the nation last year; the split of VanderPump Rules’ beloved couple, Ariana Madix and Tom Sandoval.
For nearly a decade, the dynamic duo starred in the hit reality show, wrote books together, and relished as the series’ “IT” couple. While other relationships disintegrated throughout the course of the show, Madix and Sandoval seemed to genuinely connect and support each other, leaving fans shocked at the news of their split, and even more so, at the cause of their breakup. Reports flooded every social platform that Sandoval had a secret affair with Raquel Leviss, fellow castmate and friend of Madix.
As a fan of the show (and a woman), I was appalled. Yet, as a PR professional, I was intrigued by the scandal. For a series that was rapidly declining as previous seasons brought in lackluster audience results, the news of the breakup spiked interest back into the show as the jaw-dropping finale lured almost 2 million viewers, a dramatic increase from past seasons.
However, for my PR brain, I found the countless PR mistakes these reality stars continuously made far more interesting than the melodramatic breakup. So, let’s start from the beginning as we dissect the cast’s dreadful PR decisions.
PR Mistake #1: Poor (or no) PR Representation.
Reality stars often find themselves amid controversy, so it was shocking to uncover that some of the main cast members do not have PR representation. When the news broke, Bravo jumped at every opportunity to interview the cast, pulling at every string to unlock more secrets and, ultimately, more drama. Andy Cohen’s popular Watch What Happens Live late-night talk show showcased one important takeaway of being in the limelight – hire a PR firm. Tom Schwartz, longtime friend, castmate, and business partner of Tom Sandoval, appeared on the talk show shortly after the news broke, evident that he was not prepared for the questions surrounding his role in the affair. Schwartz contradicted himself and failed to authentically answer questions with anything more than “word salad,” a failed attempt to throw in buzzwords and fancy lingo to throw the interviewer off. It did not work. Andy Cohen later revealed he gave Schwartz interview coaching to better train him for future appearances. Which brings me to my next point…
PR Mistake #2: No Media Training.
Clearly, without PR representation, the likelihood that many castmates took the time to prep for interviews is unlikely, but practice is crucial even without professional counsel. Many exhibited poor communication tactics, not answering questions accurately, changing their responses, or simply not structuring answers concisely or clearly. With the rapid evolution of communication channels and the ubiquitous presence of digital media, those facing backlash must navigate a complex landscape where every interaction can and will be scrutinized. With PR representation, the castmates would have been coached thoroughly, been prepped on crucial tactics, such as bridging, and would have saved themselves public ridicule and embarrassment.
PR Mistake #3: Poorly Written Statements.
When Sandoval decided to make an official statement to the public regarding the affair, his comments were crucified by Bravo and the Vanderpump Rules fanbase. Published through his Instagram, Sandoval focused his remorse on how the news will impact his businesses, never once mentioning the scorned partner of a decade he betrayed.
The statement was also riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors, posing more evidence that it was merely an attempt to save face. Leviss, on the other hand, did not immediately publish a statement, and when she publicly spoke, she was ridiculed for her Instagram caption, “I’m sorry ”
In the face of adversity, public perception can be shaped and influenced by the manner in which the information is presented. PR professionals are experts in crafting and writing powerful statements that convey the core message and would have worked with both individuals to publish a compelling message to fans that addressed their mistakes. Leviss and Sandoval could have expertly chosen words, tone, and messaging that conveyed a clear narrative that aligned with their values and intentions. Instead, without the help of a PR team, both parties worsened the situation by publishing poorly crafted statements that lacked responsibility and most importantly, empathy.
PR Mistake #4: Lack of Empathy.
Whether you are an A-list celebrity or the CEO of a company, one PR rule remains constant for all: lead with empathy. The severity of the crisis may not impact the individual or business as hard if the parties involved take accountability and acknowledge their wrongdoings, two examples both Tom Sandoval and Raquel Leviss ignored. If they had proper representation, crisis PR experts would have helped lead the “Scandoval” in a more healing direction. By cultivating empathy, the scorned lovers could have rebuilt trust, reestablished friendships within the Vanderpump circle, and navigated the complex situation with a nuanced understanding of the diverse viewpoints at play. Instead, they focused on the collapse of their reputations and businesses, leaving behind a soiled trail of regret and missed opportunities.
Today, even though almost a year has passed since the affair was revealed, both reality stars are still facing enormous backlash for their actions and lack of compassion. As a new season approaches later this month and viewers watch as the reality stars pave the way for a new chapter in their Bravo story, I can only hope for one change amid the chaos: they have all finally hired PR firms.