Lessons from Tom and Katie

Debra Pickett is president of Page 2 Communications (www.page2comm.com).  A former newspaper columnist and television commentator, Pickett offers consulting and training services to law firms and lawyers who deal with the media.  She writes here each week on topics related to Law and Media.  To learn more, reach her at deb@page2comm.com.

By now, pretty much everyone in the world has heard about Hollywood stars Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes settling their divorce on Monday.  But family lawyers have been hearing about it even more than the rest of us, mostly in the form of a single question: Why did their divorce take only two weeks?

 Lawyers handling the matter issued brief statements celebrating its conclusion, but said little about the intense behind the scenes negotiations that must have been required to make it all happen.

“The case has been settled and the agreement has been signed,” declared Holmes’ attorney Jonathan Wolfe, of the New Jersey firm Skoloff & Wolfe P.C. “We are thrilled for Katie and her family and are excited to watch as she embarks on the next chapter of her life.”

Cruise’s lawyer Bert Fields was similarly upbeat, issuing a statement saying, “Tom is really pleased we got there, and so am I.”

Both attorneys said the details of the agreement – financial and custodial – will not be shared with the press.  And the petitioners themselves have made virtually no public comments except to ask that their, and their young daughter’s, privacy be respected.

This strategy of resolving the matter super quickly and keeping tight control on public statements is, of course, a time-honored one for trying to move media attention away from a potentially ugly court battle.  But, in this age of social media and 24-hour celebrity news coverage, will it still work?  Will it prove to be worth whatever was given up in order to make it happen?

Without getting into the more salacious speculation about Holmes’ and Cruise’s motives, it is clear that Cruise, as the more bankable movie star with the more volatile reputation, had the most to lose by becoming caught up in a long, drawn-out exchange of claims and demands.  So, in essence, his legal strategy, as evidenced by the phrase “we got there” had to also be a communications strategy: the faster the settlement, the shorter the story.  Cruise’s team knew they couldn’t control the conversation, so they aimed to end it.

While you are unlikely to find yourself with a client exactly like Cruise, it’s not unusual to be facing a matter where the spectacle itself – client walking into court, accuser holding press conferences, pundits speculating wildly about what it all means – is distracting from or damaging to your client’s business and reputation.  In these cases, taking a page from Cruise’s playbook is a smart move: do what needs to be done to put the issue to bed.  Resolution is a one-day story.  “In process” means there’s a story every day, even when there is nothing factual to report; that’s the dynamic you most want to stay away from.

Once the outcome has been established, your client has some time to breathe.  Let things stay quiet for a bit.

Then, come out with a new story to tell.  Even if it’s not a summer blockbuster.

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