Nashville-based publicity firm Webster Public Relations has changed its name to Westby Public Relations following allegations from a former client that company founder and CEO Kirt Webster had sexually assaulted him nearly a decade ago. Earlier Wednesday, it was thought the company had been shuttered completely.
Former country singer Austin Rick told the Nashville Scene in an article published Tuesday that he began working with Webster, whose clients include Dolly Parton, Kid Rock and Kenny Rogers, shortly after moving to Nashville in 2008. He said that before long he was “trapped in a hellhole” that included repeated sexual assault and intimidation.
“I trusted him completely, and he wanted to make me a star just long enough to sexually molest and abuse me,” said Rick, who performed under the name Austin Cody. “And I remember one time he told me, ‘I want there to be fireworks in your career, but only if there’s fireworks between us.’ And that was like pretty early on in our relationship.”
In one instance, Rick alleges that Webster demanded he strip in order to prepare for a photo shoot, and that the publicist performed oral sex on him. Later at a party at Webster’s house, Rick said Webster groped him while they were with others in a hot tub. In a third instance, Rick claims to have woken up in Webster’s bed to find him “kissing me all over my face and mouth, and neck and lips,” adding, “I know I was sexually assaulted, I don’t know if I was raped. When I woke up in his bed, I knew after that I had to leave.”
Rick first brought up the alleged acts in a public posting on Facebook. In it, he claims Webster “drugged and sexually violated me” and threatened to ruin his career, and that it took him a year to get to a place where he couldn’t find him, “although he still continued to harass me via phone and text messages.”
Webster quickly denied the claims, and in a statement alleged that Rick had “opportunistic” motives for coming forward now. “As a single adult, Mr. Webster has had multiple relationships over the course of his professional life, all of which have been consensual,” a statement from Webster PR said. “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.”
Despite the strong denial from Webster, and the appearance of business as usual from Webster PR — the firm sent a press release in recent hours — the company appeared to announce it was “no longer in business” in a message on its website Wednesday morning. But hours later the site was back up and a spokesperson for the company released a statement that the closure notice was a mistake and that Webster would be stepping aside to fight the allegations.
“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 statement said. “The company’s work on behalf of its clients will continue under the leadership of Jeremy Westby, Kirt’s longstanding colleague.”