Judith Regan Flips the Script and Enjoys a PR Turnaround

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Judith Regan, one of the most successful publishers and editors in the book business, saw her career come to an ignominious end late last year after a controversy erupted about her plan to publish a peculiar memoir by O.J. Simpson, If I Did It, as well as an erotically-charged novelization of Mickey Mantle’s life. During a December 2006 conference call with HarperCollins’ attorneys about the Mantle book, Regan allegedly uttered a epithet so offensive — reportedly anti-Semitic — that HarperCollins fired her the same day.

A few months later, writer Michael Wolff published in Vanity Fair a memoir/feature about Regan, in which he reported Regan was

telling people that something has changed at News Corp. It’s not the same company anymore. Murdoch himself has changed. His third wife, Wendi Deng Murdoch, is part of the problem. It’s her craving for respectability that has made Murdoch weak, according to Judith. She might even be … liberal. Peter Chernin is … a Democrat. Gary Ginsberg worked for Clinton. Murdoch is forsaking his tabloid heart in the quest for mainstream, yuppie respectability. The greatest, most audacious media company of the age had become like any other—pitiably concerned about what people think. News Corp. is selling out. Judith Regan isn’t.

There might be something to this. Murdoch, over the last few years, has certainly morphed from a dark, ruthless, diabolical figure into a more complex, thoughtful, and, as he aged, vulnerable media sage.

Judith, the tabloid monster, is, in some sense, the skin he’s shed.

So, by that point, Regan had managed to pretty much destroy her reputation from a PR standpoint. She was the publisher who wanted to pay O.J. millions. Who used anti-Semitic epithets. Who was too “tabloid” even for Rupert Murdoch.

Regan’s defamation lawsuit, regardless of its legal merits, is a brilliant PR tactic, designed to replace her toxic PR image with that of someone far more compelling in this election year: The woman who knows secrets about a leading presidential candidate.

Most of the indictment is a series of who-shot-John accounts of events leading up to her firing, in which the Regan claims Jane Friedman, HarperCollins’ CEO defamed her by spreading the story of the anti-Semitic slur, which Regan denies, and by making Regan the scapegoat for the OJ Simpson book fiasco despite her claims that Friedman, Murdoch and other company executives approved its publication.

But have you read the press coverage? Here’s how the New York Times played it:

Judith Regan, the former book publisher, says in a lawsuit filed today protesting her dismissal by the News Corporation, the media conglomerate, that a senior executive there encouraged her to lie to federal investigators about her past affair with Bernard B. Kerik after he had been nominated to become homeland security secretary in late 2004.

The lawsuit asserts that the News Corporation executive wanted to protect the presidential aspirations of Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Kerik’s mentor, who had appointed him New York City police commissioner and had recommended him for the federal post.

In the first six paragraphs of the AP version, O.J. Simpson isn’t even mentioned:

One-time book publishing powerhouse Judith Regan filed a $100 million defamation lawsuit Tuesday saying her former employers asked her to lie to federal investigators about Bernard Kerik, the former police commissioner who was once her lover, and tried to destroy her reputation.

Regan, who worked for HarperCollins Publishers LLC, said the smear campaign stems from her past intimate relationship with Kerik, who was police commissioner under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and from the political agenda of News Corp., the parent company of HarperCollins.

Regan, 54, says in court papers that News Corp.’s political agenda centers on Giuliani’s presidential ambitions. It was Giuliani, a Republican, who appointed Kerik police commissioner and recommended him to President Bush for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Kerik had to withdraw his nomination after it was revealed he had not reported the wages he paid to a nanny.

Regan says “it is now widely accepted” that one of Giuliani’s vulnerabilities is the 52-year-old Kerik. Because of Regan’s affair with Kerik, court papers say, a senior News Corp. executive told her he believed she had information about Kerik that could hurt Giuliani’s campaign and she should lie to federal investigators.

Court papers say another executive told Regan, a HarperCollins editor for 12 years, to withhold documents that were clearly relevant to the government’s investigation of Kerik.

giuliani-kerik.jpgThe Kerik-Giuliani claims are right up front in the suit to make sure you don’t miss them. The substance of the claim is that Regan told an unnamed News Corp. executive about her affair with Kerik in 2001, at which point a “covert smear campaign” was initiated against her.

In 2001.

She was fired in 2006. In between 2001 and 2006, Regan had her own TV show on the News Corporation’s Fox News Network, and was granted the opportunity to move her imprint, ReganBooks, to Los Angeles in order to expand into synergistic arrangement with other media. She also had her contract with HarperCollins renewed and compensation increased in 2005.

Regan’s suit, however, would have us believe that the News Corporation signed that contract in 2005 fully expecting to fire her before the contract ran out, having worked on a scheme to do so since 2001.

The illogic of Regan’s claim ultimately has no bearing on the success of her suit. It is incidental to it, despite the prominent position it is given in the lawsuit’s text. The less interesting byplay concerning the statements made by and about Regan around the time of her firing could well be cause enough for her to win her case. But if that was all her suit was about, she’d win money but fail to solve her PR problem. Even if the charge of making anti-Semitic remarks could be proven false, you still have Regan as a prime mover behind the despised OJ book.

Comedy writer Andy Borowitz summarized the reaction Regan doesn’t want in Huffington Post,

The lawsuit filed yesterday by O.J. Simpson publisher Judith Regan against her former employer, Rupert Murdoch, has created a “difficult personal dilemma for me,” Satan said in a press conference today.

 

For the Prince of Darkness, who has had longstanding ties to both Ms. Regan and Mr. Murdoch, the lawsuit “leaves me feeling very much caught in the middle,” Satan told reporters.

But for most news consumers, the OJ angle is obscured behind the political angle, which plays very well especially among the very sorts of readers who might be offended by charges of anti-Semitism, or by perceived support for a wife-beating murderer. Now she’s a martyr to Republican sleaze, or so she has said.

Left-leaning blogs are buying the story — it’s one of those “too good to check” stories that hurts a potentially strong Republican candidate. Click here, here and here for a few examples. Meanwhile, Giuliani is being asked about it on the campaign trail. And that notion of Rupert Murdoch turning liberal is off the radar screen for now.

It is no accident that Regan has been a success in the publishing business. Win or lose, the lawsuit is a great start to her comeback from the brink of disgrace. If you’re in the PR business, you couldn’t find a better case study.

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