Updated Sep 28, 2023 - Economy

Unpacking the PR strategies of the messy Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner divorce

Photo illustration of Sophie Turner and Joe Jonas featuring a crack down the middle and speech bubbles behind them

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Lionel Hahn, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

There are important communication lessons coming out of the very messy, very public divorce between boy bander Joe Jonas and actress Sophie Turner.

Why it matters: Audiences are becoming savvier and more attuned to sniffing out public relations spin, staged paparazzi photos and inflated stories attributed to anonymous sources.

Catch up quick: Unnamed sources "with direct knowledge" began to slowly craft a narrative in the tabloids that Jonas and Turner were "headed for divorce" because she neglected her parental duties in favor of partying.

  • There continued to be a slow drip of negative stories about Turner, which many across social media believed were planted by Jonas' PR team in an attempt to shape the public perception of their private split.
  • "Almost immediately, people online expressed anger at the way Jonas was seemingly trying to paint Turner as a bad mom, even though he hadn't said anything on the record," Vox's Rebecca Jennings pointed out.

State of play: When Turner did respond, it was with the force of a detailed legal petition that invoked international child abduction clauses through the Hague Convention.

  • In this legal complaint, she not only responded to the salacious allegations, she totally reframed the narrative by providing meticulous details that have to hold up in a court of law.

Zoom in: These are two very different communication strategies.

  • The Jonas PR machine attempted to dictate the narrative through tabloid gossip, with the hope of winning favor in the court of public opinion.
  • Turner, meanwhile, opted for strategic silence and appeared to focus on winning in a court of law.
Number of articles published about select celebrities
Data: Muck Rack; Graphic: Rahul Mukherjee/Axios

More intentional leaks lead to more media attention, which leads to more online dissection and discussion.

  • All of these factors are almost impossible to slow down if the public's sentiment goes south.

By the numbers: There were 53,110 articles written about Jonas in the past month, per Muck Rack data.

  • This is significantly more than coverage garnered by other celebrities who were entangled in PR crises during this same time period.

Zoom out: According to Jeremy Yip, assistant professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and an expert on the psychology of emotion in negotiations, there's a scientific explanation for these PR blunders.

  • "When people become angry, they actually become less sympathetic — they care less about the welfare and concern of others. This disinhibits them to become more self-interested and construe events in a way that promote their own agenda."

What they're saying: "Using sources is ugly and people now see through it ... while court papers are on the record and are clearly attributed. Audiences know who is filing them," a longtime celebrity news editor tells Axios. "Turner came out point blank with legal documents and statements that say who, what, where and why. She's not pretending to hide behind sources."

The big picture: Trust in the media is at an all-time low and tabloid news doesn't carry the same influence it once did.

  • Plus, younger, social media-native audiences have grown more accustomed to hearing from public figures directly, as opposed to believing storylines placed in the press by unknown sources.
  • The public also now has the power to dissect these PR blunders and shape the narrative online.
    • Accounts like DeuxMoi and influencers like Molly McPherson and GirlBossTown expose PR strategies and tactics by educating the public on how these media blitzes come to be.

Between the lines: This phenomenon extends beyond celebrity news. Audiences are also more suspicious of PR campaigns or marketing fluff waged on behalf of business leaders, companies and brands.

The bottom line: "In today's world, fans dissect scandals like a murder mystery, then shape public opinion themselves. Celebrities can't hide behind flacks like me," says Matt Wing, founder of strategic communications firm Wingspan.

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