Hollywood was shaken by the news of actress Tanya Roberts’ death on Sunday — but then, on Monday, it was reported that she was still very much alive. By Tuesday, though, her longtime partner, Lance O’Brien, confirmed that Roberts had passed away late Monday — ending a media whirlwind that has prompted many Hollywood talent reps and journalists to reexamine how news is reported and who can be trusted.
“This was a royal communications screw-up,” Mark Macias, head of the global Macias PR firm, told TheWrap. “This is just a horrible story, period.”
The fiasco has “put a black mark on the whole industry, on all the publicists. It’s going to take some time to dig out,” said Dale Weiss, SVP of CommCore Consulting, a specialty communications and crisis agency.
Much of the blame has focused on Roberts’ publicist, Mike Pingel, a sometime actor whose personal website includes his show reel, books and clips of his online interview show — but no mention of his PR work. He told QLife two years ago that past clients have included The Harlem Globetrotters, Pat Boone and Farrah Fawcett.
In an interview with the New York Times on Monday, Pingel blamed “human miscommunication” from a phone conversation he had on Sunday after O’Brien visited the actress at Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she had been admitted on Christmas Eve after collapsing at home. Pingel told the Times he mistook O’Brien’s statement that “I just said goodbye to her” to mean that she had died — and then proceeded to share the news with TMZ and other outlets. (Roberts’ manager Tarri Markel confirmed the news to TheWrap, directing additional inquiries to Pingel — who did not respond.)
By Monday morning, Pingel was walking back the premature reports of Roberts’ passing that he had confirmed. (The actress, best known for her work on ’80s films like “Beastmaster” and “A View to a Kill,” died on Monday at 9:30 p.m. PT due to a urinary tract infection that had spread to her kidney, gallbladder, liver and then blood stream.)
For many talent reps, the story is a reminder of the job’s hazards. “Maybe in Pingel’s case it was validation — to have so much power in a situation, this happens,” one top Hollywood publicist told TheWrap. “I enjoy when I have a breaking news situation because of validation and power. But you better know your information!”
Gillian Sheldon, owner of Sheldon Strategy & Consulting, added: “You are only as good as your information — period.”
“It is my job to make sure my client understands that and gives me all of the facts — up front (good, bad or otherwise). Building that trust from the very beginning is critically important, as is having all of the information and context before any public statement is made,” Sheldon said. “Your credibility is paramount. It’s the only currency you have with which to do business with the press. Without it, you are seriously hampered from doing your job.”
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But not everyone is rushing to blame Pingel for the error.
“PR practitioners are people and can make mistakes, just like everyone else on the planet,” Evan Nierman, CEO of crisis PR agency Red Banyan, said. “Criticism of Mike Pingel was misguided and wrong. It appears he simply tried to do his job based on the best information he had available to him at the time.”
Another top level Hollywood publicist added: “People aren’t factoring the human side of this. You’ve got to allow people a little grace for human error. You don’t want this person’s career to be defined by this. It’s hard when it is life and death — this isn’t leaking or confirming a casting.”
Pingel has not responded to additional requests for comment.
Some publicists said Cedars Sinai should have stepped in to correct the erroneous news reports — although federal privacy laws bar them from making any public comment on patients or their condition.
“If I were Cedars — their name came up when she was reported dead — there could’ve been a fast phone call to a family member that said she’s not dead, and they, in turn, would’ve called the publicist,” Weiss said, suggesting that the hospital could have monitored social media to prevent the false reports from spreading so widely and so fast.
A rep for the hospital declined to comment for this story. Others noted that hospital resources are stretched particularly thin with the pandemic right now and the overcrowding of ICU units. “Hospital restrictions caused by the pandemic have wrought chaos in the lives of millions of people,” Nierman said.
Sheldon said it was “a perfect storm” of unfortunate events.
“In a normal hospital situation, there would be more dialogue with medical staff. Understandably, this is not the case during the pandemic. Her grieving partner left the hospital and shared what — for him — was the truth with her publicist, who then did his job and notified the media,” Sheldon said. “From what it sounds like, this rep had worked with her and her family for years, so I can understand why he did not ‘fact check’ this information. Why would he? My heart goes out to both of them. This is a terrible situation all around.”
Moving forward, Weiss said, news organizations will have to be more diligent and less automatically trusting of PR professionals.
“Journalists are going to have to take what publicists say with a grain of salt, and that it’s not gospel, but worth checking on, whether it’s contracts or studio announcements,” Weiss said, but he wondered aloud about how much caution was needed. “Do you have to call the studio now to verify a publicist’s information?”
In this case, Weiss said, there is blame to be shared all around. “Perhaps this is just a lesson: So much information comes from single unverified sources or social media, and it’s up to publicists to get it right and offer more independent sourcing, and it’s up to journalists to check closer,” he said.
But above all else, Nierman said, we shouldn’t forget that a talented actress, loved by many, has passed away.
“People should mourn her and send their condolences to her family and loved ones rather than carping at her publicist,” he concluded.