Victims and Villains: What Every PR Pro Can Learn from the Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes Divorce Saga
By David E. Johnson, CEO, Strategic Vision
The Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes divorce was the media story that never was. Despite the speculation of a long and protracted divorce battle, it was settled within days of the announcement of the split confounding many legal and public relations experts. Many are still shaking their heads at how they could have been so wrong. Even more amazing is the story is dying down in the media.
The Cruise/Holmes divorce non-story is a lesson for public relations experts to study and indeed follow:
1. Lesson One: Get Your Side of the Story Out Fast … and First
The first and most important lesson is to get the story out first that is favorable to you when you are working with a situation that will attract intense media scrutiny. While Holmes didn’t address the issue of the separation and pending divorce publicly, her team leaked to the media information about the causes of the split that painted Cruise in an unfavorable light, Holmes as a mother fighting to protect her child from Scientology, and also Holmes as a victim.
Who can forget the New York Post story about the White Cadillac Escalade outside of Holmes’ Chelsea apartment and how the story was carried by everyone. Whether the occupants of the car were related to Cruise or the Church of Scientology has never been proven. Yet it reinforced the public relations message that was going out through select leaks to the media presenting Katie Holmes as the persecuted victim in the marriage, while also being a victim of Scientology. The narrative was set and the media played into it. Over the weeklong saga, every negative story that was out there about Tom Cruise and his previous marriages, his strange behavior and negative stories about the Church of Scientology played out in newspapers and on talk shows.
Upshot: The narrative was set and public opinion was on Katie Holmes side.
2. Lesson Two: Know When to Play Your Weak Media Hand with … Silence
The second lesson of the Cruise/Holmes divorce is to stay quiet when you are painted in a corner. No matter what one thinks of Tom Cruise, he and his publicists played their weak hand masterfully. Rather than attack Holmes and the stories that were being carried by the media, Cruise and his camp kept quiet. It is hard to make a story or an issue out of silence. Indeed, as the frenzy continued to be played in the media, the stories became the same old story as the Cruise camp was providing no comment so as not to further the fire.
3. Lesson Three: Move on Quickly … and Become Yesterday’s News
The final lesson of the Cruise and Holmes divorce is end the situation and move on as quickly as possible. The denouement of the divorce happened suddenly and unexpectedly depriving much of the media of what they were hoping for. While public relations professionals played little role in the legal agreement, the Cruise camp showed a clear discipline in not talking about the agreement and just moving on. Already, they are planting stories that Cruise is involved with his Oblivion co-star. The Cruise/Holmes divorce is yesterday’s news.
Public relations professionals dealing with crisis communications will be advised to learn from the Cruise/Holmes public relations handling. Timing and getting out your message first sets the narrative. If you are dealt a losing hand, stay quiet, dispose of the issue as quickly as positive, and move the narrative to something else.
David E. Johnson is the CEO of Strategic Vision LLC, a public relations agency headquartered in Atlanta, GA. He has experience in both public relations and political communications having worked on Bob Dole’s 1988 Presidential Campaign. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org