Monica Lewinsky and the Power of PR

Hazel Phillips, Baldwin Boyle Group 

Type ‘Monica Lewinsky’ into Google this time last year and you’d get suggested terms such as ‘Monica Lewinsky blue dress’ and ‘Monica Lewinsky cigar’. Both will give you lewd results, of course – there’s hardly a human alive in the English-speaking world who doesn’t know at least the rudimentary details of her dalliance with then-president Bill Clinton.

But type her name into Google now and you’ll get a different set of suggestions. Stuff like ‘Monica Lewinsky Vanity Fair’, ‘Monica Lewinsky TED talk’ and ‘Monica Lewinsky Forbes Under 30’.

At some point last year, Lewinsky decided it was time to take back her narrative. It was time to own her own PR. And it was time for her to dictate how her story should end.

Her first stop was New York PR dynamo Dini von Mueffling, who advised her on morphing back into public life on her own terms – and building her profile as an opponent of cyber-bullying.

Von Mueffling arranged a speaking gig for Lewinsky at the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit in October last year (watch it here). It was Lewinsky’s first ever proper public speech, one where she talked about going from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one overnight. She was, she says, ‘Patient Zero’ of internet shaming, and her search suggestions certainly show as much.

Lewinsky also penned a brilliant essay in Vanity Fair magazine, where she described how hard it was for her to get jobs, how her parents had kept her on suicide watch, and how even 17 years after the scandal first broke, it’s impossible for her to go unrecognised.

She writes: “I turned 40 last year, and it is time to stop tiptoeing around my past – and other people’s futures. I am determined to have a different ending to my story. I’ve decided, finally, to stick my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past.”

In March this year, she gave a TED talk on public shaming as a blood sport and our culture of online humiliation. Acclaimed as gusty, inspirational and brilliant, it’s had more than 3.5 million views – and counting. You could say it was her pivotal PR moment.

Monica Lewinsky has successfully, astoundingly, transformed her public profile. She has more than 90,000 followers on Twitter and her search results include her recent public speaking triumphs. (There’s still room to move; it also includes TIME’s cringe-worthy list of top 10 mistresses. Hello, TIME? 1950 called – it wants its culture of sexism back.)

Lewinsky has remade herself so fast it could give you whiplash. But it just goes to show what owning your story, and a good dose of smart PR, can do.

Hazel Phillips is the MC of the 2015 PRINZ Conference, 21-22 May in Wellington, book here.

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