'Scandal' PR Guru Analyzes Angelina Jolie's Double Mastectomy Op-Ed (Guest Column)

Judy Smith, on whom the ABC hit drama is based, weighs in on how the star revealed her surprise surgery for maximum impact.
Jolie shaped her decision as a mother’s choice.
Jolie shaped her decision as a mother’s choice.
Getty Images

This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Angelina Jolie's announcement May 13, via a New York Times op-ed, that she had undergone a double mastectomy to reduce her risk of breast cancer kicked off a media frenzy that nearly universally praised the star and her message. To control the story, Jolie, 37, followed simple steps many stars often fumble:

ESTABLISH THE NARRATIVE: It's the old adage: If you don't tell your own story, others will -- and not favorably. (Christina Applegate, for instance, had to read about her 2008 double mastectomy in the National Enquirer, which broke the news.) Jolie has been a pioneer in releasing personal news and family photos to outlets like People in exchange for control and charity donations. This time she brilliantly framed her decision as a strong mother's personal choice, using the cachet of the Times and years of humanitarian work that have made her a trusted advocate for women. This new chapter jibes perfectly with that image.

PHOTOS: They Stand with Angelina: 12 Courageous Celebrities Who Battled Breast Cancer

APPLY MESSAGE DISCIPLINE: Until she went public, only Jolie's doctor and close family knew what was happening. When others came forward, their words complemented hers nicely. Brad Pitt didn't step on her message: He waited 24 hours to release a supportive statement, which praised her as a partner and mother. Jolie's doctor, Kristi Funk, then took on the education mantle in a post on her breast center's website. Even Jolie's father, Jon Voight, who had been kept in the dark, quickly offered "love and admiration."

TIME YOUR DELIVERY: Jolie and the Times chose a Monday night to put her piece online. The timing allowed the story to generate positive, serious-minded cover stories in Time and People and left the lighter weeklies -- Us, OK and Star, which have Monday deadlines -- unable to produce their own covers.