Ex-Employees, Alleged Victims React to Kirt Webster’s Return: ‘Isn’t That Some Bullsh-t?’
As controversial Nashville executive Kirt Webster has announced his plans to return to work in the wake of sexual assault allegations, his alleged victims and former employees are responding with a mix of disgust and frustrated resignation.
Webster was one of the most powerful executives in Nashville for two decades as the head of Webster Public Relations, Nashville's most prominent public relations firm. He represented country legends including Charlie Daniels, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, the Oak Ridge Boys and more, as well as younger acts including Justin Moore, Kid Rock and others.
He resigned his own company and closed up shop in November of 2017 after former aspiring country singer Austin Rick came forward with bombshell allegations against his former publicist. Rick alleged that from 2007-2008, when he was Webster's client, the executive subjected him to repeated unwanted sexual advances, bullied him into accepting oral sex and more, ending in an incident where he was drugged at a party at Webster's house and woke up in the publicist's bed with Webster kissing him. Rick left Nashville and abandoned his career afterward. After he came forward, authorities determined that the statute of limitations on the alleged crimes had passed, and Webster has faced no charges.
Multiple other former clients came forward to allege similar abuses after Rick's story broke, and nearly two dozen former employees ultimately shared stories of harassment and abuse with Taste of Country and other outlets alleging a toxic work environment that included a daily dose of intimidation, verbal abuse and sexual harassment and assault that was so well-known in Nashville that many ex-staffers referred to Webster's office as "publicist boot camp."
Webster appeared to have been driven out of business by the multiple claims, but in a statement to the Tennessean on Wednesday (Jan. 23), the publicist — whose new website prominently features the David Brinkley quote, "A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others have thrown at him" — says, "Contrary to speculation, I have never gone anywhere. I am alive and still living in Nashville, Tennessee. I am blessed to have many friends in the music business, many whom have opened their hearts and businesses to me."
Webster adds that "things and projects are happening already."
Speaking to Taste of Country, a number of Webster's former employees and alleged victims say they've been living with the fear that Webster would return to power, and his announcement has left them reeling and angry.
"Isn't that some bullsh-t?" one former employee exclaims in response to Webster's announcement. "It makes your blood curdle."
"It's my worst fear, really," Austin Rick tells us. "I knew that my story alone wasn't going to be anything that was going to hold him back from a resurgence. This was my fear, that given enough time hiding in the shadows and basically going off the grid, that we would see Kirt Webster again. That's who he is. He feels that he's invincible. He's narcissistic, and he's insulated in this business."
Multiple former employees spoke to Taste of Country on the condition of anonymity, citing what they represent as Webster's well-known reputation for retaliation. Several sources recount having lost clients or valuable business relationships due to Webster's influence in Nashville, as well as receiving anonymous threatening letters and phone calls after speaking out about him publicly or privately. (Note: In July of 2018, I received an anonymous note at my residence from someone claiming to be a mutual friend of Austin Rick and Kirt Webster, asserting that Rick was an unreliable source, after reporting a story about the tell-all book Rick is writing about Webster).
None of Webster's former associates or clients discount the possibility that he'll be allowed to return to work in Nashville. They cite Music City's "culture of silence," in which they allege that industry power players with interlocking financial and business interests shield each other, while everyone else is afraid of speaking out.
"Nobody wants to stir the pot," an ex-staffer tells us. That person says the Webster scandal and its aftermath have exposed some "truly bad people in this town," calling them "the silent people." Several prominent Nashville players recount rumors that Webster has already been working behind the scenes long before his announcement, aided by influential friends who simply deny his involvement if it's brought up.
"It's a culture of lies, and frankly, it's bullsh-t," one disgusted former associate fumes.
Another former Webster employee says that while many of Webster's all-star clients were probably unaware of Webster's treatment of his staff and his lower-level clients, others knew about it and chose to "turn a blind eye and a deaf ear" because of Webster's excellent track record of getting his clients inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"I don't know whether it speaks more poorly of Kirt himself, or the industry itself that he or any person could have this attitude that he's just gonna come on back — or better yet, he's never gone anywhere," Austin Rick muses. "It's just so disgusting. It makes me sick to my stomach."
A disbelieving former Webster staffer tells Taste of Country that the full extent of Webster's emotional domination over mostly young, inexperienced employees — many of whom he hired straight out of school, and who had no prior work experience or economic or social power — has still not been fully recounted in public. That person alleges that Webster would manipulate new employees from the outset by gaining access to their phones on their first day on the pretext of helping them access their company email accounts, and many employees feared he was monitoring their private calls and emails thereafter. That source recounts more than one ex-employee who mysteriously lost all of the contacts in their phone after leaving Webster's employ.
It was also commonplace, that person says, for employees to fear that they were under hidden surveillance at work, a claim Webster categorically denies in an email to Taste of Country. Those employees also feared to use the bathroom at Webster's office for fear they were under surveillance, and so great was Webster's alleged emotional hold that multiple people recounted fearing for their safety.
One ex-associate tearfully begged not only that their name not be used in an article, but that they not be identified by gender or even quoted in their own words anonymously for fear that Webster would recognize their speech pattern and come after them, saying they feared for their life.
Through it all, Webster has maintained that the claims against him are false or overblown, though in an email to Taste of Country, he acknowledges, "I've learned that some people were offended by things said or done in my presence. Never was there ever any intention of offending anyone or hurting anyone’s feelings. So to anyone that I hurt or offended, I apologize. I have reflected on things said and have processed it over and over in my head to make sure that going forward nobody is ever made to feel uncomfortable."
Webster also called the veracity of anonymous sources into question, writing, "We have learned over the past few days and months about FAKE NEWS and people relying on anonymous sources. Look at what is happening. The truth always rises to the top and comes out."
Webster's new website portrays him as a victim who is returning to reclaim his legacy.
"He has no remorse," Austin Rick states. "It does not appear that he has any second thoughts about any of his conduct at any point in time, and that is Kirt Webster. 'I'm flawless. I'm invincible, bitches. Don't touch me. Don't f--k with me.' That's how he always was. That's how he would speak, that's how he would carry himself, that's how he would make his decisions. Basically, he views himself as him being a kingpin."
Jeremy Westby was a longtime Webster employee, and it was initially announced that he would take over Webster PR's day-to-day operations and rebrand the firm as Westby Public Relations before the company shuttered and he split off to form his own company, 2911 Enterprises. Westby defends Webster, while acknowledging that his old office was "not always an easy work environment."
"Why can't we just move on?" Westby asks, adding that Webster has "done a lot of good things" that people were quick to forget when the 2017 allegations emerged. "People need to move on from it," he states. "I can't really speak to the past. I'm trying to move forward myself and do good things for people."
Rick says he has tried to commit suicide multiple times, and claims he still suffers from a range of after-effects related to his experiences with Webster, including extreme anxiety and PTSD. He says he only came forward at the urging of his therapist, and he has a stark message for any artist or business person who might work with the publicist in the future.
“Nobody should ever associate themselves with Webster," Rick states. "He’s a monster, and he will consume you.”
Webster has not yet disclosed the nature of any of his upcoming projects or what clients he is working with. "I don't feel comfortable discussing my current client list publicly," he tells the Boot via email. "My business projects are short-term with my clients, with a specific start and end date. They aren't ongoing clients as were the artists who I represented for public relations work in the past under Webster Public Relations."
Webster's new website features photos of the publicist with a wide array of stars and former clients. Representatives for Dolly Parton and Clint Black tell the Boot that neither star is affiliated with Webster, and Parton's rep specifically states that the country icon hired new representation in 2017. A representative for one of Webster's former artists tells Taste of Country they sent legal correspondence to Webster to protest the use of their client's image.
Taste of Country reached out to Kirt Webster, who agreed to answer our questions for this story via email. Below is his entire statement in response to our questions about the past and new allegations against him, as well as what he has planned for the future:
Anyone who had legitimate grievances or concerns with the way I ran my business has had every opportunity to bring them to the attention of appropriate agencies. No one has. There has been no investigation of my company, my business practices or my company’s treatment of its employees. If someone is eager to craft a story and to do so without putting their name to it, it is wise to be cautious when relying on that source. The truth will always come out, and the unfair advantage that anonymous individuals wield, saying whatever they want to whomever they want, is running rampant in our society. Fake news is fake news. That being said, here is my response to your questions and an answer to my goals going forward.
During the past 15 months, I have heard from many former staffers and clients with both supportive and critical things to say. Throughout those conversations, I've learned that some people were offended by things said or done in my presence. Never was there ever any intention of offending anyone or hurting anyone’s feelings. So to anyone that I hurt or offended, I apologize. I have reflected on things said and have processed it over and over in my head to make sure that going forward nobody is ever made to feel uncomfortable.
As to your questions regarding any sort of inner-office surveillance, the answer is an unequivocal no. The company wasn’t under inner-office surveillance. Any reporter who was ever at my office knows that we had cubicles in the main office area. Everyone could hear what everyone was doing in that area. There were only 5 individual offices. While Jeremy and I remain friends and we do talk business from time to time, I have no business relationship with his company. Anyone can make any accusation anonymously. Without naming your source, why should I give any merit to it? We have learned over the past few days and months about FAKE NEWS and people relying on anonymous sources. Look at what is happening. The truth always rises to the top and comes out. Those stories don’t get much attention. I appreciate you asking, but I am not interested in discussing unfounded accusations.
People get hired and fired daily, but they still move forward their lives and that I what I am doing from this point forward.
These Singers Left Webster PR After Allegations Became Public