Marketing Muckraking a podcast by Rachael Kay Albers

Cancel Culture and Personal Brands in PR Crisis, with Molly McPherson

In today’s episode I am joined by the indestructible Molly McPherson, who you may know as the TikTok “PR Lady,” as her followers have affectionally dubbed her.

I just know her as my first stop when a brand or celebrity is in the news for reasons they’d rather not be. Molly is hilarious, warm, and witty and I’m absolutely thrilled and delighted that she’s on the show today, talking about the #1 biggest mistake that brands make before, during, and after a public relations crisis and even dishing with me on my favorite topic — the online business family tree and the curious case of the SEO-optimized friendship (featuring personal brand celebs Rachel Hollis, Jenna Kutcher, and Amy Porterfield).

But, more than anything, I appreciate how Molly always brings us back to our humanity and helps us see that public relations is just a fancy way of talking about human communication.

On today's episode about cancel culture and personal brands in crisis, we discuss:

  • Molly's next gig as the star of "PR CSI" and how punctuation can catch a culprit
  • The biggest mistake brands make during a social media crisis
  • The real reason Bud Light still hasn't recovered from backlash
  • How to make a crisis go "poof!" and the 3 tenets of Molly's Indestructible PR framework
  • Why Rachel Hollis' brand still hasn't bounced back, 2.5 years after Toilet Gate
  • Molly's beef with Amy Porterfield and the online business family tree
  • Why Colleen Ballinger (or was it Miranda Sings?) mistakenly believed her ukulele would win the day
  • What do Molly's four Gen Z kids think about Mom being a TikTok sensation?
  • The difference between social media vigilantes, bullies, and investigative reporters
  • The problem with Reddit snark and parasocial relationships
  • The other side of the cancel culture coin and the pot of gold at the end of the snark rainbow

About Molly McPherson

Molly reports on crisis communications and breaking news stories with a perfect blend of snark and heart. She has over two decades of experience in public relations, emergency management, and media. As a crisis pro, Molly previously worked at FEMA and as the Director of Communications for the Cruise Line International Association, where she managed media responses during major crises. Today, Molly is a crisis communications consultant, keynote speaker, and TikTok sensation. She hosts the Indestructible PR podcast and recently won the 2023 Adweek Creative Visionary Award for Careers Creator of the Year.

Episode Transcript

Rachael Kay Albers: Here we are, we are CoMuckraking with Molly McPherson today and I couldn't be more delighted to have the queen of “snark with heart” here with us in the studio. Hi, Molly, how are you doing?

Molly McPherson: My heart! I'm great. I'm so excited to speak with you, Rachael. You have no idea! You’re one of my people.

Rachael: Thank you for being here. Thank you for CoMuckraking with us and I led with the “snark with heart” because that's how I see the way that you show up in the world in your analysis of PR communications crises. I know on TikTok, they call you the “PR queen,” right?

Molly: Yeah, some do. It's funny. You know, I get that, which of course I love. But I also see in my hashtag when people search for me, they may not know my name. So they just call me “PR Lady.” Oh yeah. So now I’m the “PR Lady.”

Rachael: Yeah, I prefer queen for you. I feel like lady… it is very midwestern, though. It is.

Molly: It is, yeah.

Rachael: It's just the “PR Lady”! 

Molly: Ya knoooow…ya know, “I just sit here and talk about PR.”

Rachael: And yeah, people think of you as the PR queen slash lady slash maven slash fill in the blank with your favorite positive adjective. But you often clarify that you see yourself more as a crisis communications…expert? Leader? Consultant? Strategist? Fill in the blank…

Molly: You know from personal branding, it's so difficult to brand yourself. To call myself a “public relations expert”? Like that doesn't even feel good to do that. But, you know, I would say, really, I'm a communicator. I'm a communicator who helps other people navigate communications in the age of social media. I mean, that's in its simplest form.

But my background in my career is working as a public information officer and emergency manager. And so I worked a lot of crises in my job. And so, naturally, it all kind of came together. So I just consider myself a public relations strategist who specializes in crisis management.

Rachael: Because you worked for FEMA, right? 

Molly: Yes. 

Rachael: And you also worked with the Cruise Line International Association?

Molly: Yes, exactly. The cruise line industry. So that's an association in Washington DC. So it's really the lobbying effort, but I was the head of communications there. So another fascinating turn in my career.

Rachael: And now I'm actually very curious about who your clients are, not necessarily who they are. I'm sure those names are under lock and key, but I'm curious about what you're doing when you're not on TikTok because you are on TikTok a lot uncovering and examining any time anyone in the media has a crisis.

You're on it, you're talking about it. You're breaking it down for your audience. So, do you actually sleep because I don't know when you have the time to work or do anything other than manage crises for TikTok?!

Molly: Yeah. People are starting to figure that out certainly in my direct messages. I'm busy, there is no doubt about it. You know, I have four kids, all of whom are going off to college this week. I've already sent off one and then I have three more. And then for the first time in 21 years, I'm putting myself in my work ahead of my four kids because I don't mention this on TikTok, but I mean, I'm a single parent and… the juggle is real. So my life off TikTok, I am a whirling dervish. But yeah, most of it I'm just doing client work and I fit in TikTok where I can.

Rachael: So what kind of client work do you do? Do, do you have celebrities reach out to you to help them manage crises? Are you working with companies? Is it a mix of both?

Molly: Yeah, I would say when I first started on TikTok, I was working with my normal client base, working with associations. I work with a lot of cooperatives. It's a business model. I did a lot of training. I had a lot of the same clients and I had a comfortable business and I just moved more into the world of social media. I also work as a keynote speaker, but TikTok completely opened a different door in my career and now it opened it up to many other industries…the entertainment industry, the influencing industry, the music industry. I definitely work with people now and names that people are quite familiar with. Very public types of crises and issues. So yes, it's been very interesting.

Rachael: It's fun to watch you solve the mystery of when an apology or a statement was written by a publicist. You just had a TikTok, today or yesterday, about how, when you have a double space after a period…that's probably written by someone over the age of 45?

Molly: Oh, I know. And so many people come at me – all these people my age and older – they're like, “Why are you dunking on the age?” And I was like, “I'm not!” But I mean, it's true. The post that I put on TikTok – I was working with a client that was dealing with this outside special interest group, but everyone on it was anonymous and I'm looking at it and they wanted me to suss out who was behind it.

And I looked at all of the tells in the communication. I thought, “This person knows what they're doing. This person clearly is following AP style.” So I thought, “Okay, they work in journalism or they study journalism.” And I could just tell through their writing that it seems like an inside job. And the final piece – the pièce de résistance – was the space, the double space after the period.

And I said, “Look for someone who either studied or worked in journalism, they're in the building and a couple of other things.” And I said, “And finally they're over the age of 45,” and they went, “We know exactly who it is.” And there was another TikTok that I did – bigger brand and they were dealing with a big crisis. But I could tell that their message was internal – they were managing the crisis internally – and again, dismissing the social media blowback, which is more thinking of someone who's had a career in traditional media and traditional media deadlines…like end of day deadlines. And then I noticed the double space. So I was looking at the company, went to LinkedIn, honed in on the two culprits in there. And then I figured out it was one and the people who worked there got back to me in my DMs and said, “You nailed it. You got it. Absolutely right. 100%.” 

Rachael: Oh, my God. That is hilarious and fascinating. And I think you called it “PR CSI”? 

Molly: Yes, I did. I threw that out there. But yeah, that's exactly what it is. You have to investigate.

Rachael: **hums the Law and Order Theme Song** I think that's a different show. But, you know…

Molly: Yeah, that's Law and Order.

Rachael: So you have done this big evolution – you have a background in more traditional PR media. In the last few years, you have transitioned into observing how crisis and communications problems happen, specifically in the age of social media and on the Internet. And so that's the TikTok side of you analyzing pop culture.

And I think I saw one of your TikToks a couple of years ago where you were like, “If I could just make my job talking to journalists about my favorite things, which include pop culture, all day, that would be amazing.” And that's kind of what you're doing these days a lot of the time, isn't it?

Molly: You, you are ripping out the exact conversation I had two hours ago with a media outlet because they want me to commentate and be a part of that. And that's exactly it. And I said, “Oh my gosh, I'm doing exactly what I wanted to do,” and there are people in my client space who I've heard through the ether say, “Oh she just does pop culture now.” They kind of poo poo it – kind of as a joke. Because I had my existing client base. But the truth is, the knowledge is in what they are doing. It doesn't matter if it's a celebrity, a reality star, an influencer or someone who works at a business, they're still doing the same thing. It just might not be as interesting, but the same PR lessons are there. So to be able to use pop culture zeitgeist moments as a case study just makes it more palatable and more interesting for people to follow.

Rachael: And you have this audience of people who are not in PR – that's not their interest area, but they are riveted by you. And I think anyone who's listening to this show, because yes, I have this audience of rebels, renegades, and revolutionaries who run businesses that burn the rulebook So, all different types of businesses and many of them struggle with how to talk about what they do and create content about what they do in a way that is interesting.

And you are just a walking case study for – you've taken something that can be, for many, very dry and boring, and you've got the traditional backbone of the industry and you make it so exciting. If you watch your content, you'll learn a lot, not just about crisis management and all that kind of stuff, but you learn a lot about communication, about trust, and just human relationships, and all of those dynamics.

So if you haven't already, follow Molly on TikTok. But you’ve gotta listen to this podcast first before you do that. There will be plenty of links in the show notes. 

So, okay, you help organizations, corporations, associations and also celebrity personal brands or not-so-celebrity personal brands – until they might inadvertently become a celebrity because of something they've said or done.

What are some of the biggest errors or mistakes that you see brands making before, during and after a crisis? What are the errors you see that you feel like could be avoided?

Molly: Well, here's the biggest one and I'm gonna take this from April of 2023 and that is – dismissing the power of the voices on social media, whether it's a well-organized mobilization of people or loosely organized around a value system. They will let a brand know, “We do not agree with you.” And that's the case of Anheuser Busch and Bud Light. I noticed a change just from that time how polarization in society and culture and conversation and discourse can truly impact brands. And when people strike out against you…you can bring down the biggest brands out there. And that changed my business, too, because obviously, the press picked up and noticed. So I did a lot of media interviews and my business changed right along with the discourse and how people handle these crises now. So that's the biggest thing. It's dismissing social media discourse.

Rachael: Yeah. And I was just thinking about that because I was at the store browsing the aisles and I saw the Bud Light like, kind of off in a corner. I was at Target…

Molly: Oh, seriously? Oh, Target. Talk about two brands who both had their moments, right? 

Rachael: Oh, wow, yeah! Ao I'm at Target – for better or worse – and I see Bud Light, lonely off in the corner. They've just shoved it back there. You talk about dismissing… Because, yeah, Bud Light's response was very much to tiptoe out of the room, hoping that it would die down.

But not only did they dismiss – they dismissed both sides, right? Because you had folks upset about Bud Light sponsoring Dylan Mulvaney. And then you had folks upset that Bud Light didn't have Dylan's back. And so they dismissed everyone. And at the time I was like, ”Oh, they're gonna bounce back quickly from this,” but I was wrong.

Molly: The whole Bud Light issue…I was being asked to commentate on it and I cannot say that I was an expert in it because it was changing so much. Yes, that's exactly what they did. And I think I said in one of my TikToks, you cannot truly be a successful brand if you are actively disengaging with a group and turning your back on a group. And there were a couple piggybackers on TikTok – people who either teach in my space or work in it – some will say, “Oh, respectfully I disagree,” I would listen to it through the magic of stitches, right? I love how people do that: “Oh, I'm gonna leverage off you to say why you're wrong,” and they're proving my point as they do it. 

Rachael: They were stitching you? 

Molly: Yes. They would take my TikTok and stitch a part of it and say either something like, “Oh, you know, I normally love everything she says, but I disagree on this,” or someone would say, “She got this wrong,” and they're all coms people, right? Professors or people who know things. But I still stand by that. A lot of the pushback was, “You can't speak to everyone at once. You have to pick your audience.” It's like you're talking to me about Marketing 101. You don't think I know that? Yeah – a beer! You're not gonna target beer to babies. I got you. I didn't even have to go to college to get that one. Got it. Thank you. No, but what I'm saying is…

Within that beer market with the persona, right? You cannot be successful as a brand and say, “Yeah, but we're not gonna pick YOU!” It's like MLB saying, “We are gonna broadcast to all MLB fans…except moms. No, you are not welcome. You wanna come to Wrigley? No, the door is closed.” You can't do that because, not only are you gonna piss off every mom who says, “not only am I never gonna go to a game again…I'm not gonna teach my kids baseball. I'm gonna have them play lacrosse cause baseball might even be dying anyway.” And then you're gonna have people who are going to support the moms and they're gonna boycott just because they're supporting the moms. That's how it works and people forget that. And that's what Bud Light did. Bud Light said, “We're gonna ignore it. Not just the trans community, LGBTQ+. All of it.” 

Rachael: And they ignored Dylan. That was the biggest problem for me was dropping Dylan and pretending she didn't exist. And she went through it. I mean, she went dark for a couple of months. She had to go off the grid. She was getting death threats. She's kind of been making her way back online. But when I heard that literally no one from Anheuser Busch or Bud Light had ever reached out to her after this happened, I was deeply disturbed by that. And I do have a belief that if a brand is going to partner with anybody – listen, we're in 2023, we know what's up. Anything that you put out there that's worth gaining attention can potentially be polarizing, can potentially move an audience, sometimes you don't know. Right? And so to do something like that and not be prepared to have her back, really just kind of showed – put it on their sleeve exactly what their intentions were all along, which was attention for the sake of it. A money grab with the LGBTQIA community without being willing to back them up and actually stand with that community. And the other side was like, “You're not standing with us! We want you to stand with us in standing against them,” right? And so what a masterclass in what not to do. 

But I'm curious, Molly. What do you think they should have done?

Molly: Yeah, that's a hard question. And it's funny when I was on NBC, they said, “Okay, you have 11 seconds.” And then that was the final question that she asked, “What would you do if you were the CEO of Bud Light?” Like I say, 11 seconds.

I mean, they made a mistake, right? But I don't think the mistake started, believe it or not, with Bud Light. I think this idea of the head of marketing – she wanted to expand and go to a different audience, which I think was smart. I think that was smart, but that's not what the crisis was. Everybody assumed that was it. That wasn't it. What it was is that she went on a podcast and she didn't look prepared. She wasn't looking at notes and one of the biggest media no-nos is you never treat an interview like a conversation. She was treating it like a conversation and she said, and I'm paraphrasing here, I forgot now, but, “We didn't want to target to those frat bros anymore. You know, we wanted to expand the audience…”

And that got clipped, you know, stitched and that is what went out. It wasn't Dylan, it was the combination of Dylan with this clip saying – not only are we embracing this audience but here we are disavowing the people who made our brand great. That's the nuance of what happened. And that's where they got their blowback. And now the mistake that I think compounded on top of that is when the CEO Brendan Whitworth came out with his statement, he had to pander right back to that to that group who was upset – I call it “The Kid Rock Crowd” – while disavowing himself and formally turning his back on the LGBTQ+  community who they had just embraced and then that was it. So that's where that was a compounding mistake.

Rachael: That's really smart. You're right because all of the news stories that I saw when this first broke did have that clip of the new marketing director or whoever she was and those comments…

Molly: Former VP of marketing. Former!

Rachael: Yeah, they're gonna be teaching about that in PR classes. Maybe you're already teaching about that in PR classes. It seems like you are teaching…

Molly: In every one of my keynotes, I talk about that because it's important. It’s like one of those watershed moments.

Rachael: And like I said, I was surprised because you've seen a lot of companies get blowback and then they bounce right back immediately. But Bud Light has not done that. And so we'll see. Only time will tell. But I'm curious if you have an example of a PR crisis or a communications crisis where the brand or the person in crisis, did things the right way or did things better, did things like how you would have advised them to do it.

Molly: You know, that question always stumped me because no one did it right. You know, no one really got through anything. I'll give you two examples and one you just mentioned who wasn't the cause of the crisis but played a big role in it. And that was Dylan Mulvaney. Dylan Mulvaney’s response and re-emergence back into social media where she explained what happened, but also explained the pain that came with it.

So what she did is she just brought everybody back to her side and reminded people of the human element that happened. And by also mentioning that Anheuser Busch never reached out to her, it casts them in such a negative light. So that's kind of one of those meta crisis responses. But I guess another recent example would be Jamie Fox who had to apologize for making a statement on Instagram.

He apologized to the Jewish community for using a phrase that I have come to learn many in Black culture identify from their years of going back to how they were treated unnecessarily and the abuse that they handled. And so that's been passed down by the generations. But it also is written in a way that seems like it is against Jewish culture, which is, “If they did it to Jesus, they'll do it to you,” so you can see both sides of it.

But Jamie Fox apologized for the negativity towards the Jewish community and didn't qualify it by saying “only the people who I offended.” He put everyone into it, put it on Instagram, not Instagram stories and was heartfelt and owned it, explained, it promised it, which is my framework and it went poof, went away.

Rachael: I was just studying up, I was brushing up on the world of Molly McPherson. And so walk us through that again, your framework. You've got this, this Indestructible PR Framework for helping people know what to do if they're in a PR crisis. So you said: own it, explain it, promise it.

Molly: Yes. OK. So I called it the Indestructible PR Framework and it's just based on, you know, I call my book Indestructible as well. And the idea behind it is this framework was born out of the idea of cancel culture, where people feel like they're going to be destroyed. And I always feel like, even if someone makes a mistake and there is some type of punitive action against them, if you own up to it, you take accountability for it, people will give you the grace. I mean, that's usually how it works. And particularly now that the news cycle is faster and faster. 

You know, when someone apologizes or acknowledges something or admits to something…they're boring. You know, it gets boring. Well, this isn't fun to talk about and snark about when you've admitted it and people move on. That's the idea behind it.

And it's no different in a public crisis and then in a personal crisis. Think about it. If you're having a fight with someone who you're dating or married to – whatever – you can keep going back and forth. If someone doesn't admit that they're wrong, you're gonna fight about it forever. But if someone says, “You know what, I'm sorry, I was wrong.” It's like, oh there's nothing to fight about. 

Same theory applies in PR, so to make it easy, it's just – own it, explain it, promise it. You take some acknowledgements. Usually all the “A” words: admit, acknowledge, apologize, atone, accept. And then you explain – and that's context and that's actually where you can explain why something happened. You can bring other people into it, you can explain it happened in this environment and then people start to get it. They buy into it like, “Oh, I see.” And then that's where the rehabilitation comes in and then the next step to move someone through it is what's your promise? What are you gonna do? Are you gonna change? Are you gonna look at it differently or you never gonna do it again and then when people hear that like, “OK, we're done here. Next.” And then they move on.

Rachael: Yeah, this comes back to what you said before. The crux of most crises is the dismissal – kind of like a traditional organization that's done things the same way for years and they're dismissing the power of social media and they're dismissing the voices or the group that may or may not be organized coming to say, “Hey, you have caused harm in this way,” or, “We're not cool with this.” So they dismiss that. And so going back to the “own it, explain it, promise it” – it sounds like the owning piece is the opposite of dismissing it, right? And all those “A” words that you said…

Molly: Yes, exactly because that's a “D” word and we don't like that word. Dismiss.

Who do we know, Rachael? So who do we know that went through a public relations crisis? And they did not own it? And to this day, they still have not recovered because they did not own it. Say it, sister! 

Rachael: Rachel Hollis! 

Molly: Rachel Hollis! 

Rachael: Oh God, this is how I learned about your work actually. We both were commenting on Rachel Hollis – obviously me through my chaos snark and you through your snark with heart. So you know, we're two sides of a coin here, Molly. But yeah, Rachel. It's been 2.5 years almost since Toilet Gate – the toilet flushed around the world. And I was looking through your TikToks today and you shared an interview that she was on where they were asking her about this and it seemed like when I was watching your analysis of it, that you agreed with some of her comments and didn't agree with some of them. So maybe you can give us the TLDR on your snark with heart re: Rachel Hollis.

Molly: Oh my gosh. I have to admit so much of my true analysis and learning about the headspace of people who've been wronged or felt an injustice was from the Reddit Hollis Uncensored group because I looked at it as a – I don't even want to tell people who are in my business because that's how you learn. Like, you cannot be good at your craft if you do not do the research. You have to do the research. And I can look at celebrity culture all day.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But if you go into a Reddit group or a Reddit forum, people are on there every day. It's a mix of schadenfreude with true injustice. And there are people there that just like to knock people down, but there are people there who are really hurt. They were taken advantage of and they will not let it go until someone can admit that they were taken advantage of. Otherwise it stays there. And the Hollises are a perfect example of that. She absolutely refused to take any acknowledgement for what she did and her career has never been the same, despite her little podcast tours and Sirius XM, I guess giving her a podcast or something. I don't know, but she's fallen from grace. And that's a perfect example of what happens if you do not take accountability.

Rachael: I think I agree with you on that. I also like to observe Hollis Uncensored. I don't participate there much. But I do observe because I talk a lot and research a lot about this branded age, this age of us productizing ourselves, turning ourselves into commodities. What is that doing to our humanity? So it's interesting to read in that group and see what this anonymous group of people – who this isn't their area of interest – what they're interested in and how they've been hurt like you said, or how they feel duped or scammed, how they've woken up to the whole family tree that Rachel Hollis is connected to. All of these celebrity, personal brands who are selling personal development and self improvement and how they're being grifted in this way.

So it's very fascinating and I agree with you. It’s the same thing happening with the Colleen Ballinger situation. Miranda Sings. You can't actually have a better example of somebody absolutely refusing to take responsibility. You want to talk about dismissal? The toxic gossip train. The ukulele. Oh my.

Molly: I know. What a bad, poor, poor choice. But you know, the one piece about it that I will give her that maybe was her thought process with the ukulele video is – what was lost in her public relations crisis is – she was a character and she portrayed this character, right? But behind that character was talent. She was a good singer.

I think she studied opera in college. I think –  if I'm going back to my research – she worked at Disney for a bit. She was a performer and so she relied on and went back to her strengths. Like, “Where do I feel comfortable? Where do I feel strong? Oh, I know I'll sing my song on this because that's –” and she probably thought she was being kitschy and I think then the mistakes started coming in. The poor choices.

And I've said – there wasn't an adult in the room when these decisions were being made, to sing her apology. Someone may have said, “Oh, if we do this…” because I know people talked about the legalities and the copyright and how people can't use it. La la la, who cares? It doesn't matter if you use the song or not, the stain of the reputation is there.

I mean, her career is over. The only way she can resurrect herself is if she resurrects into something completely different. Other than that, I don't think there's any help there.

Rachael: Yeah. I mean, in both her and Rachel's case – now Colleen is offline right now. After millions of views on the ukulele video, she is now – I think smartly – finally taking a step back, Rachel, though, is back. She's back on the scene like you said. She's on tour. But in both cases, these folks – not only didn't they follow your framework in terms of own it, explain it and then promise it – they centered themselves as the victim, right?

I mean, I don't think Colleen ever apologized in her video. Actually, she just talked about how this was victimizing her. And when Rachel Hollis discussed what happened with Toilet Gate in her interview last year, same kind of thing. Like, “Oh, I was in the middle of this. This was so hard for me to be in the center of,” and in both cases, they are dismissing. And that's why people won't let it go in both camps, right?

Because they're hurt and the more that Rachel and Colleen doubled down on the victimhood piece instead of the ownership piece, the angrier people are getting. So it's such a good point that owning it is really what diffuses a situation like this. And the “A” words you said – accept responsibility, apologize, admit you did something wrong, seek accountability.

Atone was one of the “A” words you gave. So those are very helpful for us to keep in mind. I was gonna ask you, Molly if you thought that – well, here's my little theory. 

Molly: Tell me.

Rachael: About the Colleen thing. Was that from a marketing perspective, the fact that she did it in song, even as I'm talking to you about it right now – it's in my head. And it's cute, right? “Toxic Gossip Train,” right? It’s an earworm. So there was a little bit of me that's like – maybe her strategy from this is that this earworm. To your point about how she's an entertainer. This is what built her audience was her character and her music, for better or worse, right? As Miranda or as Colleen. So part of me was like, “Did she kind of think that at the end of the day, what people would remember would be just the melody?” Like you remember a jingle of a commercial you've heard for the last 20 years? I don't know. That's my theory…

Molly: I think you’re right. I think that was part of the thinking there. But I also think she made a mistake that a lot of people in the center of a crisis make, too, is they think that they're smarter than everyone else. And I believe that she thought that she was going to be so clever that everyone was gonna praise her for how clever she was to come up with this song to explain. And she was too clever by half. It did not work.

And everyone let her know that by doing it in song, she completely dismissed what she was doing and the severity of what she was doing. And then another piece why I don't think we see Colleen around is because what's different from Rachel Hollis is – Colleen has legal issues that she's dealing with. I mean, that's why she's working with lawyers because she had some legal complications. So I think her lawyers are telling her…

Rachael: She’s working with the same lawyers who – you have the list…

Molly: Yes, it's a lawyer – not the one who I've been talking a lot about, which is Marty Singer. It will come to me. He worked with Prince Andrew, Danny Masterson. All the guys who were involved with issues and a lot of them had sexual challenges there. Because she did, too. She did, too. So that's why I think we're not hearing from her, 

Rachael: Well, I think that's a good move at this point. And it'll be interesting. Again, only time will tell. And, yeah, you live in this age of the personal brand – in her case, she is a full time creator and her entire family relies on her, even her friends are getting paid through the business of her being on YouTube, right?

Molly: And her family, they have a channel, too. They’re all in it.

Rachael: How she pivots at this point… How does one pivot? That is a good question. I looked through your content and, at the end of the day, I said at the top of the show – really, if you're following Molly McPherson, you are learning not just about PR crises, but about relationships, human communication. And, ultimately, what it feels like – a lot of what you examine comes down to trust, right?

Someone has lost trust with a person, with an audience, with a group of people, whatever it might be. And it must be so interesting for you. First of all, you said you have four kids. So I don't know if I would like to be trying to get away with something under your nose, Molly, with you as my mom. It doesn't sound like it's that easy.

Molly: No, here's a problem though. Here is the problem with me. I am a very trusting person. I come in trusting people and that has burned me mightily in my life. The reason why I know the framework works is because I've lived the framework and I've seen it work and not work. So I am the first person and I applaud you for recognizing that. Yeah, people know me for public relations. But what I'm talking about again is human relations and how people behave. And one of the things that I get praise for– it's undue praise – is, “Oh Molly predicted this! Molly, you predicted it! You said this would happen!” Wouldn't it be great to be the predictive PR person? But no. You can predict bad behavior. Like, if you know what a narcissist is, you know what a narcissist is gonna do. It’s not that difficult to figure it out. So I get far too much credit. I get far too much credit.

Rachael: You just know people. You know people, you study people, and you can see patterns and behavior that anyone if they were really looking – I think I hear you saying – could be able to see and identify. Do your kids use the framework on you, Molly?

Molly: No, they're not wise to it yet. They do understand my business. They do get it and it is fun with kids at this age. I have two journalism majors. I have another one who's like a com major and someone who's in a service academy. So she has no choice. She can't do what we do. But they all get the culture of social media and news. We're a newsy family. So it's fun that my kids pick up on all of it.

Rachael: What do they think? I mean, because they're the TikTok generation, right? What do they think about – do they watch your stuff? Are they like “Mom?! God!” 

Molly: No, I mean, if I try to go too deep into the youth pool that I have no business belonging…they might let me know, but they're very supportive and I think they think it's kind of cool. Because I work overtime to not look like a loser online and sometimes I can't help it, but I'm in the age of online reputation. I don't want to humiliate myself. So by nature, I don't want to humiliate my kids either. I think they think it's fun.

Rachael: I'm glad you've got the team spirit in your house. They're cheering you on.

Molly: Yeah. The hard part, honestly, is I wish I could tell them some of the clients who I work with because I would love to. “What do you think of this influencer?” You know? But I can't do that. That would open up a can of worms with them. And I would lose all trust with my clients. So I always have to lock it in.

Rachael: So the NDA extends to the kids, which of course. It has to. That's good. You do walk your talk, Molly. And going back to the trust thing – because that was my question, you answered my question. Do you trust anyone? Because I might be the opposite of you? At this point in my muckraking, it's hard for me to trust. Although I have an overly generous spirit at times. 

I think a lot of people listening to this probably have a set of questions that you've answered to around: “What happens if I get canceled?” or “How do I handle crisis” or “What if somebody comes for me?” 

But the other side that I am often focusing on is, “How do we know who to trust?” What are the marks or the signs of a trustworthy person in or out of a crisis? Do you have signs that you're looking for? Just like you can tell the bad behaviors based on if somebody's presenting maybe with narcissistic traits or not? What is the opposite of that?

Molly: Oh, this is such a good question because as soon as I'm off here, I'm going to film a TikTok about this question. One of the tells in the side of a public PR battle that at least involves the legal sector that you can usually spot is when it's a legal PR crisis, look for the bully – whatever the bully moves are – because bully indicates weakness. The bully is just a cover for weakness and weakness could present itself as they're the guilty party or in the legal realm, “Our case is not as strong as I would like it to be. So I'm gonna fill in the gaps by being a bully and I'm going to bait” and they'll focus on the easy, low-hanging fruits. Like, they'll talk about in their statement, the things that are easy to prove or not easy to prove to distract from: “Wait a minute. What about the real story that's happening here?” Right? So that's usually one of my tells, who's the bully and who's covering weakness? That usually is the tell to the person who's done something wrong.

Rachael: Well, ok, this is interesting, Molly, because you're on the Marketing Muckraking show. I spend a lot of time looking at, as I said before, what is the age of the personal brand doing to our humanity? But sometimes that work includes calling out harmful actors, specifically power players, right? You know that in the work that I've done, I've snarked and researched about and written about and talked about Rachel Hollis and her SEO-optimized friendships and some of the big power players in the online business world. I focus a lot on them and the predatory, unethical marketing and sales practices that they use. And I have received the feedback that by doing this, iit makes me a bully. So what is the line here? And how would you define a bully versus…? I don't know. For me, I disagree with that. Like a bully, in my opinion, needs to have some degree of power in the situation in which I do not. It’s just me down here, muckraking.

Molly: Rachael, who's calling you a bully? Tell me that first. 

Rachael: On Reddit, actually! 

Molly: What forum? Who are the people? 

Rachael: The forum was Life Coach Snark. Actually, speaking of dismissal, Brooke Castillo of the Life Coach School has come under fire recently for cutting a bunch of her contractors in a very glib, dismissive way. And through that, some of her former employees have come forward and talked about a very toxic work environment, a “cult-like environment” as some have described and on and on. And Brooke has just released an episode of her podcast talking about “unmerited hate” or something like that. Basically, this is her dismissing the critique, right? And so in this group, somebody shared some of my work about this because I've spoken about Brooke. And they were like, “Oh, you should read this.” And there were people being like, “Yeah, this is really helpful.” And then there are people like, “RKA is a bully. She's fill in the blank.” A lot of things that I wish I didn't see. You don't read the comments, Molly. I made that mistake. 

So I'm curious about this because a lot of folks – and you see it on TikTok – come onto TikTok and share content about these powerful people, whether it's a Colleen Ballinger or Rachel Hollis or Bud Light or fill in the blank with any of these celebrity online business people that I talk about. What's the line between speaking truth to power, between holding people accountable, and being a bully?

Molly: Okay. So here's the difference. So I can see why someone would lash out at you to call you a bully because you're exposing people and calling them out. There is a gray area of social media vigilantes that I think is dangerous, where we expose just regular people or we expose creators on social media, juxt to expose them, right?

And they may have said something wrong or they're gonna be taken out of context or stitched. I've had that happen to me, personally. So that's difficult. But that's different. That's where people are – in many cases – finding the flaws, they're looking for the things that they could take the opportunity to whip it right back at you.

And in some cases out there with social media vigilantism, they might see someone in public doing something horrible and they'll say, “Oh my gosh, we have to expose this person,” and the behavior may be horrible but I still don't like the act of taking a public person and I still don't like the act because it tells people, “Yeah, it's okay to just out anybody for whatever you want, you can even lie about it or not. Whatever.” 

The difference in what you're doing, though, is you are exposing an injustice. Ok? But it's not in the spirit of vigilantes just to bring someone down. Think of it more like an investigative journalist.

You are showing the other side of what's happening. I mean, go back to Watergate if we have to. Go back to the beginning, right? What happened? The people around Richard Nixon. Yeah, they pointed at figures at the Washington Post and Ben Bradlee and Woodward and Bernstein, right? 

What you're talking about – you're bringing truth to it. I think you were an incredibly important voice during a time when you were speaking the truth about people who were untouchable. No one ever said anything negative about.. oh my God, Amy Porterfield, excuse me?! And Jenna Kutcher. Rachel Hollis?! Sometimes we'd expose some cracks in there.

But what you're doing I think is opening up the door to letting people know about grifting. My biggest beef with a lot of these online players – you talk about Brooke Castillo, you talk about all those people – they're all connected and there’s one truth they will not talk about ever. They will sell their digital course. They will sell how to be magic on Instagram. They will sell all of the “I will sell products to help you become a life coach so you can sell it.” No one ever admits, “Oh the reason why I got so big is because on Facebook, that was a time when it was wide open and anyone could build a community.” The only thing that they really should be applauded for was their timing. They knew when to jump in it. And they have – yes, they worked hard, they did all the things, but no one is admitting the machine that propelled them. They didn't have success. They were propelled by the algorithm which allowed them to have sex, sorry, success.

Rachael: And probably have some sex, Molly. 

Molly: Probably. Or not! But I can say this, too, because I'm going through the same thing. I am achieving success because the TikTok algorithm favored me, okay? I've been on Twitter since 2007 and I have like 18,000 followers and it's 2023 I can get 18,000 followers in a day on TikTok. Is it because of my message? No, if I had such a great message, I would have had the following on Twitter. It's because I'm being fueled by an algorithm.

That is my biggest beef with all of them. And you are the one who – people could look at it as exposed, right? But I look at it as you're educating people in a lot of cases, women who want to be small business owners. They're moms, they're stay at home moms, and they prey on a lot of this group. You might find this in military spouse culture, which I was one of them – Christian, there’s groups of women there that might fall prey to it. So you're working as an advocate for them. So I'm sorry, that was my rant. But I feel very strongly about that. 

There's some wonderful things like Amy Porterfield. Really? You believe she wants to help people. I believe it 100%. She puts so much energy into the beauty and the packaging and that woman works hard. There's no doubt about it. And you can tell she might suffer from anxiety and she's very open about the choices that she's made in the past and the struggles. And that's one of the reasons why I applaud the stuff that she did, but you never hear about her when she talks about her origin story. “Oh, yeah, I dumped all this money with Marie Forleo but I happened to do it at a time when Facebook took me off.” So that's what bugs me.

Rachael: I appreciate you acknowledging this. You know, Molly, I think it's both things for you. I think you do have a great message. The core PR tenets that you speak to – plenty of communications experts do and have spoken to throughout history, right? But it's your delivery and the way you do it and the way that you bring it home – at the same time that you're funny and snarky there is a wisdom and a nurturing spirit. Even if the person that you're calling out or examining…I could imagine they could watch your content and still feel an affinity towards you because there's just a warmth there. So yes, you have great content. I think you have a great message and I appreciate you acknowledging you also were in the right place at the right time in a way. Some of these people who are stitching with you, I think they're trying to ride the Molly McPherson train to fame a little bit – it’s nice to be the train that everyone wants to ride – but they can't have the same success that you have had because the times have now changed. It's harder to get traction on TikTok in 2023 the way you would have in 2020 or 2018 or whatever it is. So I appreciate you acknowledging that it is the duality. You’re obviously working, you're out there. And you had some advantages that have pushed you forward. 

And the whole Rachel Hollis thing, I will say, I kind of feel that she was a sacrifice in a way. She took one for the team slash the industry in the sense of – have there been other members of this online business family tree slash cult who have said and done things far worse than Rachel said in that TikTok about her toilet? Yes, absolutely. Russell Brunson is one of the bees in my bonnet because he wrote a whole book about how Adolf Hitler is his business coach. So I'll never shut up about that. But, all of these people that finally decided to distance themselves from Rachel, it wasn't because they were so upset about what she said. It was a strategic move. They saw that the blowback wasn't dying down and that by association with her, it was going to harm their brands. So they collectively pushed her away.

Molly: Yes. And they didn't want the exposure, right? That you were highlighting and you were bringing out. No, I agree with you 100% because she had the additional punitive actions of the industry turning against her. There's no doubt about it. And that to me is unfair. I totally agree with you. There are a lot worse people out there in business…

Rachael: It gives me compassion for Rachel. These people burned her but they all are still buddy/buddy with each other and each of them kind of has their own secret locked in the closet. I don't believe you when you say that the reason that you distanced yourself from Rachel is because you were upset by what she did. I think it was that she cost you money. 

Molly: Yes, exactly. I totally agree. I totally agree. Yeah. And Rachel Hollis is a great example. But again, she’s still not getting it and I get a sense that people want her to come back. It's like they wanna wanna like her again.

Rachael: Even the snark group that I was telling you about that they were talking about me a little bit. What I ultimately had to decide about that, for my own mental health, reading those comments and having to walk away and take a moment. Was that a lot of the folks in those groups? They want it to be as simple as – when we talk about some of these entrenched circles of harmful actors that are all helping each other and perpetuating bad practices and unethical practices. I think people want to believe it’s just about one bad apple. And if we can pick that bad apple off or maybe even cut off the rotten part, then we can still eat the apple or then we can go back into believing that there is a magic pill that you can take to skyrocket to success. Or that there is a course I can download to make me happy.

People want to still believe. They're still kind of halfway bought in, which is why I do the work I do because it's not about the people. Honestly, just like you use these celebrity crises as a storytelling mechanism to help people understand human behavior and relationships and communication. But at the end of the day, that's what your message is. It's about the communication piece. Not about the people, whether it's Colleen Ballinger or Bud Light or whoever it might be. That's just a vehicle for you to get your message to new audiences of people who probably would never have thought about these things before.

Molly: It makes it relatable and understandable. Yeah. Because people follow other people,

The other element, too, and I want to add that because I want your ears to hear this. Because I work with this with my clients, too. So many of them have a Reddit problem. Okay? So they're online and they have a Reddit problem. One of the differences about why Reddit is such a different beast altogether too is that people are anonymous so they can be far more biting. It really is a snark site in a lot of cases when you get these types of rooms. But the other piece of it – and against these brands, in defense of a Rachel Hollis or someone else who's getting sucked into it – is, going back to that human behavior, people have parasocial relationships with people.

So they personally feel like they've been let down, right? It's personal. But also the Reddit algorithm creates an addiction to the schaudenfreude so that people get a dopamine hit when they see other people get knocked down. So it creates this addiction that people keep going back to these groups, they log in every day, they log in multiple times a day. If they don’t get their fix, if someone doesn't highlight a post or show something that, “Oh we're gonna attack this person again…” That's an element of it, too, that does make it challenging. So when I have people hire me, I tell them, “Remember a lot of it's algorithm addiction and schadenfreude mixed in there.” We're not dismissing them as people because Reddit is making them addicted to all of this, but we still need to manage it. So I just wanted to mention that to you because if you took a personal hit there – just put it into context.

Rachael: Yeah, I think that's important. And I, too, have a little bit of a Reddit problem, Molly. And I have noticed this within myself. I will tell you what – here's how I knew that I had a parasocial relationship with some of the people I snark on who I never even had a positive association with in the first place. Speaking of Hollis Uncensored, when Dave Hollis passed away, that news impacted me in ways that I didn't expect it to.

I was very surprised by that.

Molly: How? Tell me how.

Rachael: I was in the business of critiquing what the Hollises represented in this greater thing. But when that news broke, it affected me emotionally in a way that I was like, “Wow. Now I know I've got a parasocial relationship here.” And it's a weird, snarky, parasocial relationship. But I was sad, right? 

And it also disturbed me – this is where I had to take a step away from the snark groups. We talk about the online business industrial complex… Watching people like Mel Robbins use that as an opportunity to monetize her grief. And two days after he died, she wrote an email – it was a eulogy email – and then at the bottom of it was like, “And if you resonated with this message, go click on this interview I did with a totally different person. Go listen to my show on a whole other topic. Click here for an affiliate link to fill in the blank,” right? That just distressed me on a level that I became emotionally upset. And that's when I had to get out of there. I had to get off Reddit for a couple of months. It was not a good time, right? But yeah, so many layers to this. There’s even parasocial bonds with the people we snark on.

Molly: I'm the same way. We commentate on them. You know, the other piece of the whole Dave Holis death is…I mean, one, it's just shocking when you follow someone and that happens. But also when you said Mel Robbins, yes, when she was promoting the fact that she was doing the eulogy –  like she was chosen to “be the one person to speak on Dave Hollis's life.” No, you were chosen to represent that part of his world, the online influence world. But anyway, we could go on for hours. Look at what happened in the end. I spoke with someone and I know someone who worked for them and a lot of what people assume is happening – it was interesting to hear a lot of the things confirmed that you suspect. 

But we didn't know the manner of his death. At the time of his death, everyone was shocked. So of course, you're gonna feel that immediate knee jerk reaction of feeling guilty for snarking on someone and you could even see it in that room. Everybody was feeling so guilty. I did a podcast about it. I brought in Emily Rose. We had talked about parasocial relationships and what was happening. A lot of people felt that way about Dave Hollis. 

But look at, in the end, his cause of death. He was struggling with a lot of things that people were pointing out in that Hollis Uncensored group. “Is there an addiction problem here? Is there a drug problem here? Is there another problem here?” But here he is selling people on a lifestyle. He and Heidi Powell, the two of them together, “If you just believe in yourself, if you just  do this, if you show up, if you eat this and drink this and consume this powder.” They're hawking and shilling powder while Dave Hollis is consuming it. And that's how he dies. Now, on the one hand, people understand addiction and that's where the guilt comes in. You understand his struggle, you feel sorry for the kids, you feel sorry for Rachel, right? But again, you were making a living telling people how to better their lives and that's what you were doing? 

Rachael: 100%. No, this is exactly it. Of course, it's tragic. Horribly tragic. And his kids, his young children. One of them is around my daughter's age and so that hit home for me there. But exactly what you said and what I took out of this situation is that you've got this whole group of people – the Internet makes it so that we can turn ourselves into products, brand an illusion of happiness, success, wealth, health for our audiences and play into their own lack of health, lack of wealth, lack of connection and friendships. They're selling this sense of, “Oh, if you’re watching my stories, you feel like you're part of my world, you're my friend, you're here with us as we do all these vacations and all the things.” And meanwhile, behind the scenes, whether it is an addiction problem or whether you're making yourself look like you're a millionaire, but you rented the AirBnB that you're filming this in or in Rachel and Dave's case, they had monetized their marriage and they were doing marriage seminars for thousands of bucks a pop and in reality, they couldn't stand each other anymore. The whole thing was falling apart.

Molly: And I know we could go on forever and ever. But here's the last thing to say. I will say this. Think about when Toilet Gate happened and then we found out that they were getting divorced. Okay? Think about all the sympathy or empathy that Dave Hollis had, right? Like really a lot of it went towards him.

Imagine a Dave Hollis who did not immediately date a Heidi Powell, but a Dave Hollis who went, “God, this sucks. Oh my God. She just left me.” So he's writing a book, right? Imagine he stops what he's writing and he says, “I'm gonna write about the challenges and what's really going on here.” Not to bring down Rachel, not to bring down the whole kingdom.

But what if he chose to show up vulnerable in that moment and say, “Okay, she left me. Here's some of the reasons why.” We didn't have to hear the details of the details. We could read a little between the lines, right? He doesn't owe us everything. But imagine if he was the struggling person – what if he let us into his struggles? Imagine how many people Dave Hollis could have helped if he let people in just a little. He had another time right after Pancake Gate, you know, when he was clearly spinning on something. He even could have done it then. He could have come back then or even when he went to rehab and came back out and had honesty and vulnerability. That's what gets people through because people relate to that and people want to raise you up. As much as people love to bring people down, people love to raise people up more. Had he done that? I think it really would – we can't say it would have saved his life, but think of how many people he really truly would have helped and ultimately himself.

Rachael: That is powerful, Molly. And I completely agree. It goes back to what you said before in your framework about owning it, right? Had he owned that himself, it would have helped a lot of people. It was very, very tragic the way that ended.

I appreciate, though, you bringing us back to how – yeah, people on the Internet love to snark, they love to be people's downfall. We do have this kind of Reddit energy that pervades the Internet and because this is about human behavior and relationships and communication…I think we want to see each other win, just not in dishonest ways, right? So when somebody breaks our trust, we want to see accountability, we want to see ownership. But at the end of the day, I think it’s because we want to win. We all want to win, right? At the end of the day, each one of us is out here trying to survive and be out here in this wide world. And so yeah, sometimes we see people who do harmful things and that reminds us of the people who have harmed us. So we want to see them come to justice. And on the other side, we ourselves are struggling in this mixed up universe of ours. And we ultimately hope that we can be redeemed and that we can make better choices – that we can win. And I think that your work helps us to see both sides of that. So I really appreciate it.

Molly: I appreciate that and I just want to end it on this one note, too. All the things that you said – but also the benefit of community. Because for all the problems that Reddit has, I think one of the reasons why people love Reddit is that it’s a community. They love the community of people who think like them. So just choose the jujitsu of it. You can choose it for good or you can choose it for evil, right?

And the community is a great example. It will bring you up. So yes, the cancel culture is there. People love to bring people down – the schaudenfreude of it all. Don't forget human nature. People love to bring people back up as well. So find your community, really find your community and you'll find your success. Your authentic community, the real community…

Rachael: That’s a whole other podcast we could talk about… Mic drop, Molly! This has been amazing. Thank you so much. I can't wait to see the TikTok you make today. It’ll be in the show notes. 

Molly: Oh, great.

Rachael: It's coming in a couple of minutes. Marketing muckrakers, you will hear me tell you all about where you can find Molly McPherson online because now I know you are rushing to see her TikToks and to listen to her Indestructible PR podcast and all of the things. So I will let you know about that in a couple of minutes. And in the meantime, Molly, thank you so much for being here.

Molly: Oh, my gosh, Rachael. It was my pleasure. Love speaking with you.


Marketing Muckraking Podcast with Rachael Kay Albers

About the Marketing Muckraking podcast

Welcome to Marketing Muckraking, the show that asks not simply what brand culture can do for us, but what it’s doing to us — with your host, creative director, brand strategist gone wild, and the court jester of online business, Rachael Kay Albers — making fun of business and making business fun.

This is the show for rebels, revolutionaries, and renegades who run businesses that burn the rulebook. If you’re sick of business podcasts with all the answers — I’ve got nothing but questions.

Where we swap B School for FREE SCHOOL, easy for honest, and goal digging for marketing in pursuit of meaning.

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