When Bad Things Happen to Good People: Cyberbullying of a Celebrity Publicist

07/27/2016 05:40 pm ET
Jonathan Hay
Sabrina Hale via Jonathan Hay Celebrity
Jonathan Hay

The primary purpose of this article is to illustrate how a strong reputation can be marred by individuals or corporations with personal vendettas. Regardless a person’s skills or accomplishments, it is possible to launch an outright assault on a reputation without any actual evidence of fault or wrongdoing.  

I will examine the case of a top client who graciously gave me permission to waive our non-disclosure agreement and tell his story. Jonathan Hay, a successful publicist and record producer, has been targeted for the past few years by a group of individuals who are obsessed tearing apart his company – and as a consequence, his life.  

What’s been done to Jonathan goes far beyond harassment or cyberbullying. His attackers went to such great lengths to smear Jonathan’s reputation that anyone trying to learn about him would find more lies than truths. The cost to Jonathan’s business has been enormous but impossible to measure.  

Our companies have spent a substantial amount of money and countless hours to undo what was done. The structure of internet as it exists today makes it extremely difficult to repair damage from the type of attacks he endured. But in the end, Jonathan was able to prevail and even grow stronger from the experience.  

Let me start by saying I am truly honored that Jonathan has agreed to come forward to tell his story. He is tenacious with a fortitude unlike I’ve ever seen.

Jonathan has earned his way into the highest ranks of the hip-hop industry, achieving a level few others have. As a celebrity publicist he has worked with artists such as Rihanna, Whitney Houston, and Wiz Khalifa. In August, he will appear as an artist, mentor and music producer on the BET  TV show “One Shot.” The show is hosted by Sway Calloway and includes celebrity judges DJ Khaled, RZA, TI, and Tech N9ne, just to name a few.  

Despite all that success, Jonathan recently had a painful realization that there were two people with an agenda painting a very different view of him online. And it wasn’t just strangers who were exposed to these lies written about him, but his own parents.  

“I was connected with my biological family for the first time in my life a year and a half ago,” Jonathan says. “I was adopted as a newborn, and it’s been my lifelong mission to find them. When I finally did, naturally, the first thing my birth family did was search my name online to learn more about me ― because that’s what people do nowadays. I spent my entire life building credibility in the industry, but the first time they read about me, all they could see was page after page of slander. It was humiliating.”  

Especially frustrating was that the defamatory material – which spanned dozens of websites large and small – was simply untrue.  

While Jonathan initially felt powerless to defend himself, his attackers were free to create as much material as they liked. “They were simply sitting behind their computers manufacturing content in an effort to bring down my entire life,” he says.  

The origin of the attacks goes back a few years to a time when Jonathan was already well-regarded in the industry. Jonathan met his fiancée Sabrina Hale in 2008 and shortly after they launched several businesses, including a new publicity company, Jonathan Hay Publicity. Jonathan credits Sabrina as being the secret behind his success, elevating his brand to what it is today. Hay’s attackers targeted both of them, strategically selecting websites favored by search engines like Google and Yahoo to maximize visibility.  

The attackers used search-engine optimization, or SEO, strategies to ensure that their material ranked high in searches for Jonathan’s name or business. While such searches previously generated websites highlighting Jonathan’s high-profile publicity work, people began to see defamatory material the attackers had created.  

One strategy the attackers employed was to bombard sites with false negative reviews of Jonathan and his business. While such actions violate the terms of service of many websites, it’s not easy to uncover or prove.  

“They wrote all of the reviews so that they would appear to be coming from multiple people posing as clients by using fake names, false stories, and fabricated details that painted us in a very bad light,” Jonathan says. “They created a plethora of reviews, complaints, stories, anonymous forum postings, and articles on their own sites that appeared to be written from journalists to target us.”  

The attackers were extraordinarily successful. At one point, a search for Jonathan, his fiancé, or any of their businesses on Google would yield two full pages of false complaints – some of them extremely personal.

“One person in particular even went as far as to invade our families’ homes with the most horrendous accusations you could imagine involving minors, causing irreversible damage and immeasurable pain that impacted many lives,” Jonathan says. “From an outside view, this smear campaign seemed like legitimate complaints against our company and against us personally, so our businesses started to suffer in a major way.”  

Jonathan has worked hard and at great expense to undo the damage, forcing over 100 websites to be taken down. But even today, the work isn’t finished.

One major issue is that freedom-of-speech laws make it very difficult to have material removed from the internet. It’s often necessary to get a court order and prove to a judge that statements are untrue. That can mean hiring lawyers across multiple jurisdictions and massive legal bills.  

“By the that time the stuff written about you has been sitting online for so long, the damage has already been done,” Jonathan says. “We spoke to the FBI and to the local authorities. It seems that the police don’t have any protocol in place for dealing with these types of things because the laws haven’t quite caught up – and that needs to change.”  

The damage – both financial and reputational – spilled well beyond Jonathan and his fiancé. One of Jonathan’s partners at his record label was forced to hire one of the most expensive, high-profile attorneys in the country, who reported the crimes to the US Attorney’s office.  

Ultimately, it was possible to link the attacks to two individuals. All of the material was traceable back through IP addresses and emails to a competing publicist/social media specialist and a blogger Jonathan had met a few years ago.  

“In order to help stop the bleeding, our companies invested a lot of money and resources to build a case against these online predators,” Jonathan says. “We already knew who was doing this, but now we had the proof.”  

For all his suffering, Jonathan believes he has gained from the experience. In particular, he learned how to manage his reputation online and has been noticed for turning his image around.  

“This situation has caused us to majorly elevate our performance. Since all this happened, our visibility has significantly increased as we’ve landed the highest media placements that we’ve ever had,” he says. “People in high places have reached out to us with similar stories of their own, and great opportunities have presented themselves.”  

“These calculated attacks have been the biggest crisis we’ve had to face as a company, and it has been financially, emotionally and physically draining for all of us involved,” he says.  

Today, a search for Jonathan or his company on Google yields a much more agreeable list of results on the first couple of pages: His own company’s website, a Wikipedia entry, along with articles in several music-industry publications.  

Jonathan was recently quoted in Rolling Stone Magazine, which described him as a “crisis-management expert”.  

(Edited by John Jannarone)

See the artwork below for Jonathan Hay’s upcoming albums ‘Deluxe: When Music Worlds Collide’ and ‘Deluxe: The Urban Hitchcock LP’. 

Artwork by Sabrina Hale for Jonathan Hay Celebrity
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