Can PR “Manufacture” Tom Cruise’s Religion?

I've always liked PR Week, and just started subscribing to it. It doesn't really take a position in the newly urgent debate over what kind of effective PR can be done in this period of ferment in the communications world, but it interviews interesting people in and around the industry who do have strong views, so it's worthwhile.

That said, PR Week's editorial (link for subscribers only) on Tom Cruise made my jaw drop. The editorial notes that Paul Bloch, co-chairman of Rogers & Cowan, has taken over as Cruise's publicist; and that the deployment of this respected PR veteran might have come too late to save Mission: Impossible III's box office from "the vitriol, the 'you're glib, Matt' bit on Today, the Oprah couch affair, and the Scientology tents." Probably so. But then:

The calculus of celebrity is a wildly unpredictable formula, such that the greater the depths of self-immolation, the greater the potential for a cathartic return to the fold. Americans have this seemingly endless capacity to forgive the celebrities they love, or hate. They also tend to have a relatively short memory and love nothing more than the drama, the pathos of the prodigal star. Martha Stewart's stock is up again. So is Kobe Bryant's. Who knows, but even Mike Tyson may return, a lesser George Foreman, perhaps born again and pitching lean cuisine and mufflers.

The key to resuscitating Cruise will be putting him in a metaphorical closet: fewer appearances, less talking, more smiling. Bloch should take a page from the studio system, circa 1940, when studios had stables of stars who were tightly controlled, whose public "personalities" – including details of their private lives – were as manufactured as possible.

Tom Katie.jpgThese are some odd comments. Cruise hasn't "self-immolated." He's not on drugs, or accused of a crime. No, he's a faithful adherent to a religion that many people find bizarre and cult-like, and his association with the religion shines a weird light on what would otherwise be perfectly normal life events like falling in love and becoming a father.

Is PR Week suggesting Cruise separate himself from Scientology? Or, more disturbingly, are they suggesting he should pretend to separate himself from Scientology? How would he do that? To use PR Week's word, should Rogers & Cowan "manufacture" another religion for him? Will they start sending him to a Presbyterian church or a Buddhist temple? Or will they stage a Cruise defrocking? Religion is pretty personal. Cruise has a First Amendment right to worship however he chooses, and Americans' respect for that right has benefited Cruise. I don't think the movie-going public would believe it for one second if Cruise suddenly renounced Scientology.

Certainly, Bloch can tell Cruise, "quit talking about Scientology, quit talking about psychiatrists, quit talking about depression medication. You're not the expert on those things. You're an expert on acting and your movies — focus on that." Classic PR advice. But "manufacturing" a personality and a private life for Cruise? It's absurd to think that would work.

Worse, PR Week giving that advice plays right into the public's worst impressions of the PR industry — that we "manufacture" a false reality. Sure, some PR campaigns undoubtedly are built around false information, but that's a bad and dangerous practice that most PR folks I know don't follow. Especially nowadays when (to flip Mark Twain on his head) a lie can get around the world 15 times, but the truth will catch up in the 10th lap.

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