Ex-Employees Portray Working With Kirt Webster as ‘The Darkest Period of My Life’
Following the allegations of sexual assault against prominent Nashville publicist Kirt Webster, a number of former employees are opening up about what they describe as Webster's well-known penchant for predatory sexual behavior.
The allegations were first reported by the Nashville Scene on Tuesday (Oct. 31), when former aspiring country singer Austin Rick, who performed under the name Austin Cody, alleged that Webster had sexually assaulted him over a period of time, watched hardcore pornography in front of him, intimidated him into accepting oral sex and more, all while holding his career future over his head. He says it culminated in an instance where he was drugged at a party at Webster's home and woke up in Webster's bed with the Music City power player hugging and kissing him, after which Rick left Nashville and abandoned his country career. Rick was 21 at the time.
Multiple former employees of Webster's whose tenures with the company ranged from several months to four years allege a pattern of behavior in which Webster threatened, intimidated and harassed them on a daily basis, creating a toxic work environment that is widely referred to in Nashville as "publicist boot camp" that particularly targeted young people.
Webster's country clients have included Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams, Jr., Justin Moore, Jewel, the Oak Ridge Boys and a long list of others in a business that has grown into one of the largest publicity firms in Nashville since he founded it in 1996. He often hired graduates or gave them internships straight out of college, ex-staffers say, and employed a mix of bullying and career rewards to dominate them emotionally, making shockingly inappropriate comments in the workplace and even openly sexually assaulting them by fondling them, both male and female subordinates.
"It was the most difficult job I've ever had," one former publicist with Webster says, recounting a series of comments and incidents that she recalls happened "on a daily basis, around other people and clients." All of the former employees wished to remain anonymous, citing Webster's influence in Nashville and a fear of reprisal.
"After I would go to the salon, I'd be on the plane with high-profile clients and he'd say, 'Oh, did you get a Brazillian wax today on your vagina?'" she relates, mimicking a singsong delivery that she says often accompanied Webster's comments. "He would grab me by the hair and air hump me, he would caress me."
"As a young woman straight out of college in the music business, you're already facing so many challenges, and he didn't make it any easier," she states.
A male former employee confirms Webster was open about his sexual advances, calling Webster's office a "very hostile work environment. It was just toxic." Even when he wasn't making overt sexual advances and inappropriate comments, he says Webster was emotionally abusive to his employees on a daily basis, criticizing their work, threatening their jobs and pitting employees against one another by starting rumors about them.
"It was the darkest period of my life," the former employee says. "You get physically and mentally drained and beaten down ... you get raked over the coals and get your ass handed to you for things that are just ridiculous."
"There was plenty of groping going on, I'll tell you that," he adds. "Butt grabbing, that sort of thing. Kinda chuckling about it. It was a common occurrence ... none of this surprises me," he furthers of Rick's allegations, which he says are far more serious than anything he experienced before ultimately leaving Webster. "I'm just glad it has finally come to the surface."
Another ex-employee recounts a story similar to Rick's, saying that after Webster hired him, he pressured him into both giving and receiving oral sex and fondling himself at Webster's direction. Though he says it "sounds stupid," he felt forced into it.
"It was a lot of pressure," he tells us. "He's just gotten done running [publicity for] John McCain's political campaign, and people were nervous that he was having them followed. I was afraid if I said anything ... I didn't know what he was capable of. He was dropping [former Fox head] Roger Ailes' name, and you realize how connected all that was and you just don't know who he had access to, in what part of government that could have ruined your life."
Fear of reprisal is an ongoing theme of Webster's former employees. Everyone who spoke to Taste of Country agreed to do so under the condition of anonymity, citing Webster's deep influence in Nashville and the fear of getting sued as two reasons not to come forward in public even years after leaving his employ. Rick tells us that after he stopped working with Webster, he instantly lost his endorsements and his booking agency.
Several ex-Webster staffers expressed a mixture of surprise and indignation that none of his celebrity clients has ever said anything about his behavior, which some former employees allege happened in front of certain stars at times.
"To say that they weren't aware ... for stuff like this to go on for so many years and to say they didn't have any idea, I'm going to be rolling my eyes a lot as I read more stories about this and people coming out and trying to distance themselves from him," one source tells us. (Taste of Country has reached out to multiple artists from Webster's roster, who either did not respond or declined to comment on the record).
"It's amazing that he's just now getting caught," another adds. "But people are afraid of him because of who he represents, and they don't want to cross him. There's the threatening of blackballing them in the business where they can't get work. And that's especially the case with the younger people."
Despite Webster's flaws, his former employees agree that he's a gifted publicist who works tirelessly on behalf of his clients. None of the sources we spoke to expressed any surprise at the allegations Rick made against Webster, however.
"I hope this all gets sorted out. I would never wish anyone damage to their reputation, but I think it's kinda been damaged for a number of years," one tells us.
"When you leave, you're equipped, and you know you will go on and be able to do great things. That's what people loved; they loved his creativity, his brilliance when it comes to PR and marketing," says another. "Many people are not shocked, but sad for more reasons than one."
Kirt Webster has not spoken publicly about the sexual assault allegations levied against him, but he did release a statement on Tuesday, saying, "As a single adult, Mr. Webster has had multiple relationships over the course of his professional life, all of which have been consensual. This includes a brief relationship with Mr. Rick. It saddens Mr. Webster that nine years later, after Mr. Rick’s music career has been stagnant, Mr. Rick has taken the opportunistic approach of mischaracterizing that relationship and posting untrue allegations."
On Wednesday, a note at Webster PR's website said the company is no longer in business as of Nov. 1, 2017. That note has since been removed, and the company sent out the following statement Wednesday afternoon:
Earlier today, it was mistakenly posted on the Webster Public Relations’ website that the firm has been closed. This was stated incorrectly. Webster Public Relations will continue operating - but under the name Westby Public Relations - while Kirt Webster takes some time away from the business to focus on combating the egregious and untrue allegations made against him. The company's work on behalf of its clients will continue under the leadership of Jeremy Westby, Kirt's longstanding colleague.
Westby had not returned several calls and an email from Taste of Country seeking comment at press time. Webster has not responded to an email seeking comment on the additional allegations his former employees made to Taste of Country.
Austin Rick has launched a GoFundMe campaign to cover legal costs he anticipates incurring if Webster sues him. WZTV-TV in Nashville reports that Metro Nashville PD will investigate Rick's allegations.
Update: The Nashville Scene has now spoken to another aspiring young country singer who alleges that Kirt Webster sexually assaulted him in the same manner that Rick has alleged, but within the last year. Nashville's Tennessean newspaper also spoke to former staffers who shared horror stories from their time with Webster PR.
These Singers Left Webster PR After Allegations Became Public