Cruise's PR push scores on TV, but his online effort really bytes

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I am a Tom Cruise fan twice over. And by that I mean I not only appreciate his films but also his fine work as a celebrity train wreck.

He recently returned to the public eye, which is strange considering he doesn't have a new release to promote. The nominal reason: celebrating the 25th anniversary of his film career. His ulterior motive: image rehabilitation.

Cruise's publicity strategy had two components. He was featured in a two-part special on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," where he addressed controversies ranging from his affiliation with Scientology to using Winfrey's couch as a trampoline three years ago. Cruise also just launched TomCruise.com, an online retrospective of his career.

But while his "Oprah" appearance was a veritable master class in PR stagecraft, the Web site confirms that Cruise remains quite clueless about how best to restore his reputation.

On TV, Cruise was incredible. It was as if every second of Winfrey's visit to his home in Telluride, Colo., had been choreographed to deliver one message: This man is normal.

Scientology? When Cruise responds to Winfrey's questions, he never even utters the name of his religion. Instead, Rabbi Tom simply recommends viewers read about it themselves. Translation: He's no zealot. Katie Holmes? She greets Winfrey upon her arrival but leaves a minute later to "take the kids into town." Translation: She is not a brainwashed love slave.

Lap it up, soccer moms. Cruise and publicist Paul Bloch should submit themselves in the writing category for outstanding drama at this year's Emmys. And give Winfrey a nod for outstanding supporting actress; she teed up enough softballs to make her Cruise's best wing man since Goose in "Top Gun."

But on the Internet, Cruise's strategy was different. TomCruise.com makes no reference to the tabloid trappings of Cruise's life. It is an elegantly designed shrine to the actor's work; lots of photos and factoids but no message boards lest detractors be tempted to blaspheme.

Cruise actually had to wage something of a legal battle to secure the rights to his own name, which he won from a cybersquatter in 2006. And while there's value in at least owning your own domain name to prevent some miscreant from poaching your precious identity to launch a porn site, to contain a communications strategy there is really an antiquated approach to the Internet.

Many celebrities don't bother to post anything on URLs in their own name because to truly influence Web chatter in the era of social networking means getting viral. Loading up TomCruise.com is soooo 2002.

Cruise should know that better than anyone: There are countless videos on MySpace and YouTube mocking the actor. In January, a leaked video of Cruise discussing Scientology with unhinged intensity probably did more damage to his image than his "Oprah" couch-hopping.

If Cruise were smarter, he would have fought fire with fire. Rather than erect an online shrine, he should have produced and starred in a viral video or two of his own that poked fun at himself. Lock Holmes in a fake dungeon and pretend it's their bedroom. Re-enact scenes from "E.T." with the Scientology alien god Xenu.

Just do something to convey a sense of being in on the joke. Done well, he could reach millions more than he would from his Web site.

Cruise needs to understand the difference between mediums. On the sea of sentimentality that is "Oprah," he can manipulate emotions the way he does so well on film. But on the Internet, there is no controlling the message; the best one can hope for is just taking part in the conversation.
Ultimately, it's not a question of where Cruise positions himself on the Internet but with what tone. Replace that high seriousness with a sense of humor. Learn to laugh at yourself, Tom, or there's a few million or so people online who will do it for you.

Andrew Wallenstein can be reached at andrew.wallenstein@THR.com.



CRUISIN' FOR A BRUISIN'
Tom Cruise has been the subject of plenty of Web ridicule

Tom Cruise Kills Oprah
This doctored footage of Cruise on "Oprah" is rather shocking.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4jo6KkFfIc

Jerry O'Connell as Tom Cruise
Actor funnier re-creating Scientology speech than on "Carpoolers."
http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/3f716ffebe

Tom Cruise Nike Commercial Spot
Ingenious mash-up of requisite running scene in every Cruise film.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cx2u7f8yg6s

Cruise Plays Poker with Jesus
A card game for the ages, featuring the son of God ... and Jesus, too.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsdApSHAujU

Mission: Impossible 4 -- Wedding Day
A sequel in which he faces his greatest challenge: wedding planning.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuCMn94_vgc&feature=related
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