Say what you like about James Packer, he knows how to spin a story.

First there was his marathon public relations campaign to win backing for a casino at Barangaroo in Sydney — a war waged through a paid advertising blitz, soft TV interviews, opinion articles and drops to friendly media outlets. Over time his contentious proposal became seen as inevitable and the New South Wales government duly gave it the tick.

Next was Killing Fairfax. As well as granting author Pamela Williams extensive interviews, Packer posed for the cover alongside mate Lachlan Murdoch and toasted to Fairfax’s demise at the book launch. Packer and Murdoch emerged looking like internet visionaries; revenge for decades of critical coverage in the Fairfax press and redemption for their One.Tel disaster.

Then came his divorce from Erica Baxter earlier this month. The end of a high-profile marriage is never a good news story, but the right strategy means it need not be a PR calamity. According to crisis management experts who spoke to Crikey, there is a well-established playbook for minimising the fall-out from a divorce:

  1. Buy her silence. “The critical thing is to buy the wife’s silence with a non-disparagement clause in the divorce settlement,” said a veteran PR operative. “That way, if the wife speaks out she gets diddly squat. Things get out of control when the wife is powerful and can do counter-spinning.”
  2. Control the information traffic. Otherwise you could end up roadkill as rumours run wild. This means getting the story out before it leaks, and shaping it to make you look good. Have a statement ready and, if possible, line up some friends to speak glowingly about you. Give the story to a sympathetic media outlet; hopefully they’ll be so thankful for getting the scoop they won’t dig up dirt on who did what and why.
  3. Take out out the trash. Don’t announce the split on a slow news day. Get out the calendar and pick a moment the story will get the least attention.
  4. Frustrate the snappers. Pictures make a good story great. So make sure the prying paparrazi can’t get fresh photos. The best way is for you and your wife to get out of the country — and stay there for as long as possible. “You go to ground and the media will eventually get bored,” a veteran spinner said.
  5. Call in favours. The more mates you’ve got in the media — and the fewer enemies — the better you’re shot at getting a good run. Even better if you own media outlets, control them, or have friends who do. That’s what makes covering divorces by powerful media figures — such as Packer, Rupert Murdoch and media buying legend Harold Mitchell — so delicate. Packer is especially well-connected, with mate David Gyngell running Channel Nine, and likely Rupert successor Lachlan Murdoch running Ten. “Inside the media we all know that it’s keep-off-the-grass when it comes to reporting the personal lives of media owners, big media buyers and mates,” a senior media executive said. “All the energy that most media expend on digging dirt on private lives is suspended when a James, Rupert or Harold break up with their wife. And every editor and news director understands the rules and knows that to transgress is to lose your job.”

Although we don’t know the details of Packer’s divorce settlement, it’s clear he ran a textbook media management operation. On the morning of Friday, September 6 — the day before the federal election — Packer provided Sydney’s Daily Telegraph with a statement on the divorce. It was just the latest Packer drop for the Tele, which has previously scored exclusives promoting his Barangaroo plans and vision for western Sydney. One suspects Packer would have been pleased with the resulting story: “Stress killed the relationship — James and Erica Packer to divorce after six years”. The piece noted Packer had endured years of pressure building his empire, and that he had undertaken to provide generously for Erica and children. “James’ main priority at the moment is the wellbeing of his kids,” a family friend told the Tele. The paper planned to splash the story as a Saturday print exclusive.

“The couple’s absence meant no juicy pictures for the press. Even more importantly, the break-up was almost totally overshadowed by the election result.”

But unfortunately for Packer and the Tele, even the best-laid plans can go awry. Other journalists were onto the story and were racing to break it. In the end The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Andrew Hornery was the first to break the story online, with The Australian Financial Review and the Tele following up.

In the broader scheme, however, this was a mere glitch. Erica Baxter had flown out to Los Angeles on Wednesday with the children. On Friday, Packer jetted to Greece to celebrate his birthday with Lachlan Murdoch. The couple’s absence meant no pictures for the press. Even more importantly, the break-up was almost totally overshadowed by the election result.

“It’s a classic Sydney story,” a harbour city PR expert said. “If it hadn’t been that day it absolutely would have been on the front page of The Sunday Tele, of The Sun-Herald. There were no photos and the timing was magnificent.” Most of the coverage was friendly too. “If you did a public survey, I’m sure they’d say, ‘oh poor James’,” said another veteran spin doctor. It was largely left to the SMH to flesh out the juicy details.

Media buyer Harold Mitchell’s nous was also on display in how he handled his separation from Bevelly, his wife of 50 years. He got out on the front foot by giving brief, remorseful comments to the AFR — and later The Australian — confirming the split and emphasising he didn’t initiate it.

From there, the story disappeared with no follow-ups. It helps, of course, that Mitchell isn’t as high-profile as Packer. But so does the fact that, despite stepping down from media buying earlier this year, he remains a powerful figure with connections across the media. You’d be a brave reporter to cross him — or delve too deeply into his personal affairs.

As for Rupert Murdoch, he may be the most powerful media figure in the world but the coverage of his June divorce from Wendi Deng was far messier. The difference from his 1998 separation from Anna Murdoch is a reminder of how much the media landscape has changed. Back then, Murdoch announced the separation through New York Post gossip columnist Liz Smith in a brief column emphasising the split was painful but amicable, and that the couple were trying to work out their differences.

This time around Murdoch was unable to control the news. It was a showbiz blogger Nikki Finke (described as the “most feared, despised, and uncompromising journalist in Hollywood”) who scored the exclusive on Murdoch filing for divorce. News Corp then issued a brief statement confirming the split, which was apparently timed to ensure maximum transparency ahead of News Corp’s separation into separate publishing and entertainment divisions.

In Australia, Fairfax newspapers raked through the implications for the Murdoch empire and salacious rumours about Wendi Deng and Tony Blair. US gossip site Gawker went even further by publishing lewd rumours about Murdoch’s sex life.

Readers of Murdoch’s Australian papers, however, would have had little idea about such scuttlebutt — or even the divorce itself. The Weekend Australian consigned its report — cobbled together from The Wall Street Journal and The Times of London — to page 11. The big-selling tabloids such as the Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph ran minuscule briefs.

In these days of media mayhem — of tweeters and bloggers and Facebookers churning out endless innuendo and snark — at least there are some things a mogul can rely on.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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