In the context of divorce public relations, Sophie Turner’s silence was the strongest message, experts say

By | September 12, 2023

When a high-profile celebrity’s split makes headlines, speculation about what went wrong or who’s to blame comes into play, as in the case of Joe Jonas filing for divorce from Sophie Turner last week after four years of marriage.

Until Labor Day weekend, when the first breadcrumbs were thrown about the looming split, there were little to no indications of marital problems. Turner, 27, even posted a photo on Instagram with Jonas, 34, during a date night in New York City in mid-August. Rumors immediately went haywire as news broke about the fall of their seemingly impenetrable marriage, framing certain narratives intended to prop up one party — in this case Jonas — at Turner’s expense to sow seeds of doubt. The popular line in these stories was that the game of Thrones the actress was painted as “a bad mom,” while Jonas was labeled the “responsible parent,” as Glamor put it. Many have understood the ruse.

“In a lot of celebrity PR crises or scandals, people will fall on one side or the other,” crisis PR manager Molly McPherson, who has posted a series of videos on TikTok discussing the media game, told Yahoo Entertainment by Jonas-Turner. “Before social media, the press controlled the narratives. Now the public is in control of the narratives, thus making public relations an incredibly difficult tactic in any type of public relations crisis or celebrity crisis.

An insight into the Jonas-Turner divorce saga

On September 3, rumors began circulating that Jonas and Turner were on the verge of splitting after TMZ reported that the singer was looking for a divorce lawyer, citing sources that the couple had been having “serious problems” for at least six months. For three of those months, the outlet claimed that Jonas, who has been touring the United States with the Jonas Brothers, took care of their two daughters “pretty much all the time.” He largely portrayed him as the family’s primary caregiver. Meanwhile, Turner was away filming the upcoming crime TV series, Joannain the United Kingdom, a fact omitted from the report.

But before TMZ’s report was published, eagle-eyed fans noticed something was potentially amiss when photos surfaced of Jonas and Turner without their wedding rings. That didn’t stop the singer from posting a photo on Instagram with his siblings on Sept. 2, with his wedding ring on full display. Adding to the confusion: Jonas was again spotted wearing his wedding ring during the September 3 Jonas Brothers concert in Austin, Texas, just hours after it was reported that a divorce was imminent.

On September 5, Jonas officially filed for divorce from Turner. In the divorce papers, filed in Miami Dade County in Florida, Jonas claimed that the marriage was “irretrievably broken” and that their children lived with him in Florida and other parts of the country, implying that they were with him in tour. The next day, the former couple released a joint statement, which they posted on their respective Instagram accounts, saying they were “united” in their decision and acknowledging the rumors, calling them “speculative narratives.”

But the “speculative narratives” continued to unfold. Things would get more complicated as details emerged about what could have led to the dissolution of their marriage.

At first, many of the stories framed Jonas in a more positive light than his ex-wife, who was subtly criticized for “not being a mother to an acceptable standard,” Vogue he wrote. There were paparazzi photos of him having lunch with his daughters in Los Angeles on September 6 as he looked for the part of an ideal doting father, while TMZ suggested that Turner’s alleged party-girl lifestyle didn’t align with the preference of Jonas to stay at home. (A resurfaced interview from April 2020 appears to have refuted that accusation, in which Turner told Conan O’Brien that she was an “introvert” and a “housewife,” suggesting that Jonas was the “real social butterfly.”) One report suggested that Jonas had seen or heard something Turner allegedly said or did on a Ring camera that was “the final straw” — but he never revealed what it was.

Meanwhile, photos emerged of Turner drinking a cocktail at a bar in the UK in what was said to be the Joanna final party. Some criticized his happy-go-lucky attitude amid a pending high-profile divorce while Jonas cared for their two children in the United States, which People reported that the couple had “agreed it was best” while working abroad. The daily mail reported, via an anonymous source, that the actress — who was 20 when she started dating Jonas and 23 when they married in 2019 — “felt trapped” and wanted to “relive her youth.” But people didn’t believe it, with food for thought popping up in Turner’s defense while decrying mom-shaming and misogyny.

“This is not a new narrative – a woman supposedly underperforming as a mother – and speaks to society’s age-old expectations of women to put education, for their men and their children, before their own needs,” Vogue pointed out, crediting the common sense of the public for having discovered “the misogynistic nuances of Jonas [sic] reported.” Rolling Stone had a similar approach: “Looking at a young woman [like Turner] being dragged through the mud for being a bad parent, simply for at least having the audacity to do so Attempt maintain a life of their own” is worrying. “It is deeply disturbing that in 2023 the media – and, by extension, presumably Jonas’ team – have made the calculated decision to capitalize on decades of right-wing rhetoric that mistreats women who make a concerted effort to balance work and family, to behave as they should.”

Then, Jonas talked about his “crazy week” on stage at the Jonas Brothers concert in Los Angeles on Saturday.

“I just want to tell you, if you don’t hear it from these lips, don’t believe it, okay?” he told the crowd.

What we can learn from the Jonas-Turner PR debacle

“The Jonas-Turner split is a PR lesson gone wrong,” said McPherson, who often works with clients in the entertainment and influencer industries. (McPherson has no ties to Jonas or Turner.) “I think Joe Jonas, or Joe Jonas’ team, has learned how difficult it is to rally public opinion. And by trying so hard to create their narrative, it ultimately ended up hurting them.

He believes a combination of factors led them down this path, to the point where they are attempting to walk back those initial reports that painted Turner in a bad light. “I think the reason this PR shift went sideways is that they tried to influence the narrative from the beginning,” McPherson explained. “When they probably sensed that things weren’t going in their favor, they added more stories to the mix. The risk of doing so in today’s social media culture, full of social media savvy users, is this [people] they can spot the manipulation much quicker than before.

“Before social media, it was much easier to control the narrative of a public scandal or, in this case, a celebrity divorce, because all you had to do was control the press,” he said. “Today the task is to control all public opinion: an impossible task.” McPherson credits social media platforms like TikTok, which has evolved into a tool where users learn from various experts on different topics like therapy and human behavior.

“Joe Jonas’ PR spin is happening in parallel with these social media posts that are teaching people how to spot gaslighting, how to spot narcissism, how to spot the end of a marriage and the end of a breakup. So it is very difficult to influence public opinion and shape a narrative when so many social media users are being educated on how to spot it,” she said.

New York divorce attorney Katherine Miller, of Miller Law, explained why celebrity divorce is “a careful balance of personal negotiation, legal battle, and pivoting.”

“Social media plays a huge role in divorcing celebrities, and anyone who can control the media message has an advantage in the court of public opinion,” he told Yahoo Entertainment.

Miller cited Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s 2022 defamation case as a significant precursor. “This case involving the male versus female perspective is reigniting the controversy over misogyny, mom shaming and ‘super dads,'” she said. “The Joe Jonas-Sophie Turner divorce is especially significant even in the midst of a summer of major celebrity divisions over ‘bad mom’ politics. Historically, mothers have taken most of the blame for social ills, and many women are now speaking out against this. It seems like Jonas’ team is hoping to improve her image by painting Turner with the “bad mom” brush and latching onto that misogynistic perspective. Turner supporters are fighting back.”

When a high-profile celebrity divorce surfaces, why does the immediate instinct arise to take one side and make the other evil? “People are tribal by nature, and divorce brings out our natural tendency to decide who is right and who is wrong,” Miller explained. “Celebrities are seen as ideals and when they divorce, the tribal tendency amplifies and divorce becomes more than just the breakdown of a relationship between two human beings. Instead, society sees divorce with more meaning. Moral judgments are made.”

It’s also human nature to want to be with “other like-minded people,” McPherson added, stating that Jonas and Turner’s divorce is unique in that they have distinct fan bases. “Joe Jonas fans, many of them have been following him since childhood, so they need to reconcile the Joe Jonas they saw on a poster on their bedroom wall with this Joe Jonas who may be throwing virtual mud at his wife . On the other hand, you have the die-hard Sophie Turner game of Thrones fans who admire her strength and power as a woman and want to firmly support her.”

If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that “it’s impossible to influence an entire Internet to think a certain way,” McPherson said, adding that “there is no public relations playbook for controlling public opinion.” So when things go wrong, they leave Very wrong. “I believe the only way to overcome these scandals when they happen is to have an answer as close to the truth as possible. People expect the truth and, if it is not given to them, they will discover it themselves.”

Silence, in Turner’s case, ultimately won out: “a public relations tactic that has endured,” McPherson explained. “Those who tell the truth can allow themselves the luxury of sitting comfortably in their own reality. Since Sophie Turner didn’t speak out while all this mud was being thrown at her, she chose not to engage in the back and forth. Her silence was the strongest message of the entire week.”

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