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

Crisis PR Angelina Jolie - P 2013
Getty Images

Crisis PR Angelina Jolie - P 2013

Judy Smith, on whom the ABC hit drama is based, weighs in on how the star revealed her surprise surgery for maximum impact.

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.