A social media firestorm swirling around the TikTok-famous couple Lunden and Olivia Stallings has reignited a discussion over how public figures should issue apologies online.
Lunden and Olivia—a 26-year-old couple who became beloved on TikTok over the last three years by posting endearing “day in the life” vlogs and “get ready with me” posts—were receiving heightened attention for the wedding-related content posted in the lead-up to their Oct. 1 nuptials. But that attention soured after old tweets from each featuring racist language resurfaced online in the days following the wedding. First, several tweets written by Lunden as a teenager, in which she used the N-word multiple times and also told people to “go back to their country,” were unearthed and shared on Oct. 3 (before the Reddit user who posted them deactivated their account). Later that day, Lunden, with Olivia sitting by her side, posted a nearly 10-minute-long video apologizing.
Crucially, Lunden posted the video on her TikTok stories—not her main feed—meaning it disappeared after 24 hours and does not live anywhere permanently (except on the accounts of users who recorded and re-shared it). This move invited more criticism from the couple’s fans, many of whom had already responded to the unearthed tweets, leaving disapproving comments on their recent videos. Many people stitched the apology and offered their takes on why it fell short.
Since Lunden’s tweets were shared over a week ago, the couple has lost a little over 8,000 followers on their TikTok page, according to SocialBlade. But Molly McPherson, an expert in crisis public relations management who has gained over 439,000 TikTok followers with her analysis of public figures’ controversies, says the couple will likely come out on the other side of the drama mostly unscathed—at least in terms of their brand deals, which include TJ Maxx, Taco Bell, Marshalls, and more.
“If there are brands that still want to work with them, they will work with them. They will get through it,” McPherson tells TIME. “They’re part of a long list, an ongoing list, of people who get called out for racist tweets from their past; I don’t think by any means they are going to be the last ones.”
Still, the controversy raises questions about who influencers’ apologies are truly for—the brands that pay them versus the audience that follows them and may have been hurt by them—and whether or not certain transgressions should derail a person’s career online.
How to apologize online
Audiences are accustomed to seeing their favorite celebrities and influencers weather bad publicity. Last month, Drew Barrymore faced backlash for preparing to bring back her talk show amid the Hollywood writers’ strike. Fans were disappointed by beauty gurus James Charles and Jeffree Star, the former of whom was accused of having inappropriate conversations with minors and the latter of whom was the subject of a 2020 Insider exposé with allegations of sexual and physical violence. (Star denied the allegations. Charles owned up to his actions in an apology video that no longer lives on his YouTube page.)
Recent months have also seen Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher come under criticism and subsequently apologize for their letter of support for former cast mate Danny Masterson, who was recently found guilty of two raping two women, and a major backlash against Lizzo after she was accused of sexual harassment and fostering a toxic workplace environment, allegations she denied. It’s not uncommon for public figures who answer for their criticized behavior by way of an Instagram apology or stoic YouTube apology video to eventually make a comeback.
“Creators who truly understand accountability are the ones who are going to get through it and get through it quickly,” McPherson says. True accountability, she says, is recognizing who is hurt and why they’re hurt. “With every new social media racism scandal, I think the bar is set higher and higher for these creators to take accountability.”
McPherson has three clear steps to avoiding full-blown cancellation: First, own it, by taking accountability for your actions and understanding who the victim is. Second, explain it, by offering an explanation to the audience as to why the offense happened. Finally, promise to change.
Some influencers may take the more proactive approach of scrubbing their digital footprint. But influencers rarely do this, says McPherson, because authors of years-old controversial tweets usually do not expect to become famous online. “Influencers are focused on brand deals and income and products, but they never stop and pause to think about their reputation and their digital footprint.” And their own PR representatives focus on looking forward rather than backward, as reps look to promote their influencers and get their clients brand deals. “They typically don’t have a response or a strategic communicator. They only call them when they need them, and that’s when they’re already in trouble.”
Of course, there are some who argue that any influencer who has to worry about cancellation for past behavior such as racist tweets is not one to whom they will devote their time or follow. By and large, however, in many cases the majority of followers do seem to come back, if they even go at all.
Where Lunden’s apology went wrong
In Lunden’s lengthy apology video, she explains her past tweets as Olivia nods and shows her support in the background. “I’m completely and utterly disgusted and ashamed and honestly embarrassed at how normal it was for me to speak that way on Twitter, and for my friends and I to address each other that way or for me to sing along in rap songs,” she says in the video. She goes on to say that the fault was all her own and the Twitter account had been deleted so as not to further offend anyone. (Incidentally, the fact that she made the apology wearing a $200 mint green collared blouse was off-putting to some viewers).
McPherson said that Lunden’s apology would have been better received had she explained exactly what she planned to do to fix things. Instead, her apology avoids mentioning her racist tweets outright, and she does not acknowledge the community of people she hurt. She does, however, offer that any offended parties can reach out to her via DMs.
Following Lunden’s apology video, old tweets from Olivia with similar language resurfaced, as well. One TikToker posted a video showing screenshots of instances in which Olivia allegedly used the N-word online, posted a photo of a man with a Confederate flag hat with the caption “precious,” and shared a photo of a Black woman, calling her “ratchet.” Olivia has not addressed the resurfaced tweets as yet.
Controversy around the couple began brewing even before the old tweets were found. Their Oct. 1 wedding, featured in People and dubbed by many as a “royal wedding,” drew criticism for the choice of venue: Naylor Hall in Roswell, Ga. Online, people called out the couple for getting “married on a plantation,” though the venue was not, in fact, a plantation, according to the Roswell Historical Society. Its original owner, Hugh Proudfoot Sr., did own slaves.
This scandal put a dent in the couple’s honeymoon, but ever since Lunden’s apology video disappeared from her stories, the couple has gone dark on social media. Fans have posted on the r/lundenandolivia subreddit about how they are processing this event, with one person posting a lengthy statement about their disillusionment, encapsulated by its final line: “Their content is so curated to make them look perfect, and I fell for it.”