In Molly McPherson’s world, just about anything is a tell.
If a statement says a marriage ended “amicably,” for instance, that’s a sign that it was anything but. If a juicy tidbit is couched with “sources say” in a publication like The Daily Mail or TMZ, the leak likely came from the A-lister’s own camp. And if a piece of unsavory news drops on a Friday, you can be pretty sure that the celebrity and their handlers hope it gets buried in the weekend news cycle.
But if you follow McPherson, a crisis communications expert who moonlights as a celebrity PR whisperer on TikTok, you probably knew all that already.
McPherson, 54, has spent over two decades repairing dinged-up reputations as a crisis communicator, a subset in the field of public relations. Whereas many PR professionals are tasked with promoting all that a brand does right, McPherson has made a career out of cleaning up when something — or, more often, someone — goes wrong.
And for the past two years, in addition to her day job, McPherson has run a TikTok account dedicated to analyzing the PR strategies of the class of people who find themselves in hot water perhaps more than any other: celebrities.
Now, McPherson, who lives north of Boston, has her own reputation to manage.
She has racked up nearly half a million followers for her rapid-fire observations on the pop culture tidings du jour, from Joe Jonas’s divorce from Sophie Turner, to the Taylor Swift–Travis Kelce romance, to Lizzo’s lawsuit by her backup dancers.
#stitch with @KYLE MARISA ROTH Is the relationship PR? Of course it is! The answer you’re after is if it’s real or not. #taylor #taylorswift #swifttok #traviskelce #jets #football #nfl #pr #fyp #prlady #crisiscommunication #sophieturner #hughjackman #ryanreynolds #deadpool♬ original sound - Molly McPherson | PR
McPherson dissects the nearly infinite supply of digital breadcrumbs — official statements, blind items, paparazzi shots — looking for hints that point to what may be going on behind the scenes. In a field of fixers, McPherson is the one pointing out the stitch-work.
“People want to be fed the information behind what they’re watching,” said McPherson. “They don’t want to be curated to any more. It’s artificial. It’s manufactured.”
It may seem like an ironic pitch coming from a professional in PR, a trade long associated with heavily packaged spin. Indeed, McPherson has become the unlikely face of an industry often designed to lurk in the shadows. And, like pulling back the curtains on a puppet show, she’s giving away all of its secrets.
“People know it’s not true. They know puppets aren’t real. They can see the strings. But people still love puppet shows,” said McPherson. “But now they want to know who’s holding those strings.”
Was NSYNC’s recent reunion track, for instance, designed to distract from Britney Spears’ memoir, which included an allegation that ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake urged her to get an abortion when they dated as youths? Is the Swift-Kelce romance a real flame, or a cooked-up stunt to drum up fanfare (or both)?
McPherson admits she has no answers. But she knows what questions to ask.
In the world of PR, not every spin lands perfectly. Sometimes, it comes back around and…BOOMerang. What happened when Team Joe Jonas took the divorce story out for a spin. #joejonas #sophieturner #pr #fyp #crisiscommunication #publicity #celebrity @FluentlyForward @The New York Times @TODAY Show @Vox @Newsweek @Celebritymemoirbookclubpodcast♬ original sound - Molly McPherson | PR
Her videos are catnip for a media-savvy culture that can spot an insincere Notes App apology from a mile away. She’s even scored new clients off her TikTok fame, including figures she has made videos about in the past, she says — though NDAs prohibit her from naming names.
After all, she says, celebrities are just high-profile stand-ins for the sorts of clients she advises. “Doesn’t matter if it’s a celebrity, or a CEO, or head of a bank,” she said. “Everyone’s doing the same thing. They all respond the same way.”
She knows from experience. After receiving her master’s degree from Boston University, McPherson cut her teeth on crisis communications as an external affairs officer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The platform formerly known as Twitter had launched recently, and McPherson saw the early potential of social media to “tell our story and to do it on our own channel,” she said.
Eager to experiment, McPherson flew down to Tennessee in 2008 following an outbreak of tornadoes to film victims on the ground receiving FEMA assistance.
While the footage from Tennessee didn’t end up going public, her work was a turning point for the agency, said Marty Bahamonde, her former boss.
“I don’t think we ever looked back from there,” he said.
When McPherson’s then-husband, who worked for the military, was transferred to New England, she gave up her FEMA job, soon settling into a steady career of consulting and public speaking gigs. Fast forward to 2020: The pandemic dried up many of her gigs, and the newly separated McPherson started lurking on TikTok.
And, in 2021, she started making videos on the app, learning to strike while the algorithmic iron was hot. A vast audience soon formed.
“PR, unfortunately, has a PR problem,” said Boston University PR professor Amy Shanler, who helped McPherson get a lecturer position at BU. “She’s demystifying and explaining things so that people don’t have to guess what we do.”
No matter whose reputation is at stake, it is authenticity that tends to resonate, says Michelle Egan, current chair of the Public Relations Society of America, which recently hosted McPherson as a keynote speaker at its Northeast District Conference.
“Whether it’s a celebrity or leadership in a company,” Egan said, “the days of corporate-speak or prepared statements are bygones.”
Even McPherson herself has found herself in the internet’s crosshairs. In one instance, she made a video calling out what she saw as unwarranted “social media vigilantism” in the reactions to a viral clip of a white woman in New York feuding with a Black man over a bike rental. Some viewers felt that McPherson’s take let the woman off the hook too easily given her behavior in the video and the racial dynamics at play.
McPherson has since deleted her video, but said the experience gave her greater empathy for the kind of backlash her clients face. “I learned more in that situation that happened to me than I’ve ever learned in my two-and-a-half years on TikTok,” she said.
So it makes sense that she considers her newfound platform a sort of “laboratory” for assessing new ideas to bring to her clients. Does an A-lister’s divorce statement provoke sympathy, or mockery? In a high-profile lawsuit, whose side do the masses flock to?
“If someone is blowing up on TikTok, either positively or negatively, I want to know why,” she said. “Because I’m telling my client, ‘This is what we need to do, we need to replicate this,’ or, ‘Don’t do this.’”
But as McPherson, a mother of four, embarks on being an empty nester, she sees herself moving further away from client work and doubling down on content creation — TikTok, her “Indestructible PR Podcast,” her work on the subscription-based platform Patreon, perhaps even a book.
She knows firsthand how quickly it could all disappear. But she has a feeling her reputation will continue to precede her.
“Truth never goes out of style,” she said, a PR mantra if there ever were one. “I think I’ll always be in demand when people demand the truth.”