When a high-profile celebrity split hits the news cycle, speculation over what went wrong or who’s to blame comes with the territory — as was the case when Joe Jonas filed for divorce from Sophie Turner last week after four years of marriage.
Up until Labor Day weekend, when the first breadcrumbs were planted that a split was looming, there was little to no indication of marital trouble. Turner, 27, even posted an Instagram photo with Jonas, 34, on a date night out in New York City in mid-August. The rumor mill immediately went into overdrive as reports spread about the downfall of their seemingly impenetrable marriage, framing certain narratives meant to prop up one party — in this case Jonas — at the expense of Turner to sow seeds of doubt. The popular through line in these stories was that the Game of Thrones actress was painted as “a bad mom,” while Jonas was labeled as the “responsible parent,” as Glamour put it. Many saw through the ploy.
“In a lot of celebrity PR crises or scandals, people will fall on one side or another,” crisis PR manager Molly McPherson, who posted a series of TikTok videos discussing the Jonas-Turner media play, told Yahoo Entertainment. “Before social media, the press had control of narratives. Now the public has control of narratives, thus making PR spin an incredibly difficult tactic in any type of public relations crisis or celebrity crisis.”
A breakdown of the Jonas-Turner divorce saga
Rumors began circulating on Sept. 3 that Jonas and Turner were on the cusp of splitting after TMZ reported the singer was seeking a divorce attorney, citing sources claiming the couple had been having “serious problems” for at least six months. For three of those months, the outlet alleged that Jonas, who has been touring the U.S. with the Jonas Brothers, had been taking care of their two daughters “pretty much all the time.” It largely painted him as the family’s primary caregiver. Meanwhile, Turner was away filming upcoming TV crime series, Joan, in the U.K., a fact that was omitted in the report.
But before the TMZ report came out, eagle-eyed fans noticed something was potentially amiss as photos of Jonas and Turner without their wedding rings surfaced. That didn’t stop the singer from posting an Instagram photo with his brothers on Sept. 2, wedding ring in plain sight. Adding to the confusion: Jonas was again seen with his wedding ring during the Jonas Brothers’s Sept. 3 concert Austin, Texas, hours after reports that a divorce was imminent.
On Sept. 5, Jonas officially filed for divorce from Turner. In the divorce documents, which were filed in Florida’s Miami Dade County, Jonas said the marriage was “irretrievably broken” and that their children had been living with him in Florida and other parts of the country, implying they were with him on tour. The next day, the ex-couple issued a joint statement, which they posted on their respective Instagram accounts, saying they were “united” in their decision and acknowledged the rumors, calling them “speculative narratives.”
But the “speculative narratives” continued to play out. Things would get messier as details emerged about what could have led to the dissolution of their marriage.
At first, many of the stories framed Jonas in a more positive light than his estranged wife, who was being subtly critiqued for “not mothering at an acceptable standard,” Vogue wrote. There were paparazzi photos of him at lunch with his daughters in L.A. on Sept. 6 looking the part of an ideal doting dad, while TMZ suggested Turner’s alleged party girl lifestyle failed to align with Jonas’s preference for staying at home. (A resurfaced April 2020 interview seemingly debunked that allegation, where Turner told Conan O’Brien she is an “introvert” and a “homebody,” hinting that Jonas was the “real social butterfly.”) A report suggested Jonas saw or heard something Turner had allegedly said or did on a Ring camera that was “the last straw” — but never actually revealed what it was.
Meanwhile, photos surfaced of Turner having cocktails at a U.K. bar at what was said to be the Joan wrap party. Some decried her carefree attitude amid a pending high-profile divorce while Jonas was looking after their two kids in the U.S., which People reported the pair had “agreed was best” as she worked overseas. The Daily Mail reported, via an unnamed source, that the actress — who was 20 when she began dating Jonas and 23 when they married in 2019 — “felt trapped” and wanted “to relive her youth.” But people weren’t buying it, with think-pieces popping up in defense of Turner as they called out mom-shaming and misogyny.
“This isn’t a new narrative – a woman supposedly underperforming as a mother — and speaks to centuries-old societal expectations on women to place nurture, for their men and their children, in front of their own needs,” Vogue pointed out, crediting the public’s savvy for sussing out “the misogynistic undertones of Jonas’s [sic] reported allegations.” Rolling Stone had a similar take: “Watching a young woman [like Turner] be dragged through the mud for being a bad parent, simply for having the audacity to at least try to maintain a life of her own” is of concern. “It is deeply bothersome that in 2023, the media — and, by extension, presumably Jonas’s team — made a calculated decision to capitalize on decades of right-wing-driven rhetoric bullying women who make a concerted effort to balance work with family, to behave as they are supposed to.”
Then, Jonas addressed his “crazy week” onstage at the Jonas Brothers concert in Los Angeles on Saturday.
“I just want to say, if you don’t hear it from these lips, don’t believe it OK?” he told the crowd.
What we can learn from the Jonas-Turner PR debacle
“The Jonas-Turner split is a lesson in PR spin gone awry,” said McPherson, who often works with clients in the entertainment and influencer space. (McPherson has no ties to Jonas nor Turner.) “I think Joe Jonas, or Joe Jonas’s team, learned how difficult it is to herd public opinion. And by trying so hard to craft their narrative, it ended up hurting them in the end.”
She believes a combination of factors led them down this path, to where attempts are being made to walk back those initial reports framing Turner in a bad light. “I believe the reason why this public relations spin went sideways is they attempted to sway the narrative early on,” McPherson explained. “When they likely sensed that it was not going in their favor, they threw more stories into the mix. The risk of doing that in today’s social media culture, filled with savvy social media users, is that [people] can spot manipulation a lot quicker than they used to.”
“Before social media, it was a lot easier to control the narrative of a public scandal or in this case, a celebrity divorce, because you only needed to control the press,” she said. “Nowadays, the task is to control all of public opinion — an impossible task.” McPherson credits social media platforms like TikTok, which has evolved into a tool where users are learning from various experts about different subject matters such as therapy and human behavior.
“The Joe Jonas PR spin is happening side-by-side with these social media posts that are teaching people how to spot gaslighting, how to spot narcissism, how to spot the end of a marriage and the end of a breakup. So it’s very difficult to sway public opinion and shape a narrative when so many social media users are being educated on how to spot it,” she said.
New York divorce attorney Katherine Miller, of Miller Law, explained why celebrity divorce is “a careful balancing of the personal negotiation, the legal battle and the spin.”
“Social media plays a huge role for divorcing celebrities and whoever can control the media’s message has a head start in the court of public opinion,” she told Yahoo Entertainment.
Miller cited Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s defamation case in 2022 as a significant precursor. “This case involving male versus female perspective is reigniting controversy about misogyny, mom-shaming and ‘super dads,’” she said. “The Joe Jonas-Sophie Turner divorce is particularly significant even in the midst of a summer of major celebrity splits because of the ‘bad mom’ politics. Historically, mothers have taken a lot of blame for social ills and a lot of women are pushing back on that now. The Jonas team seems to be hoping to improve his image by painting Turner with the ‘bad mom’ paintbrush and hooking into that misogynistic perspective. Turner supporters are pushing back.”
When a high-profile celebrity divorce emerges, why is the immediate instinct to pick a side and to villainize the other? “People are tribal by nature and divorce brings out our natural tendency to decide who is right and who is wrong,” Miller explained. “Celebrities are viewed as ideals and when they divorce, the tribal tendency is amplified and the divorce becomes more than just the breakdown of a relationship between two human beings. Instead, society views the divorce with more meaning. Moral judgments are made.”
It’s also human nature to want to be with “other like-minded people,” McPherson added, stating that Jonas and Turner’s divorce is unique in that they have distinct fanbases. “Joe Jonas’s fanbase, many of them have followed him since their childhood so they need to reconcile the Joe Jonas they saw on a poster on their bedroom wall with this Joe Jonas who could possibly be throwing virtual mud at his wife. On the other hand, you have Sophie Turner’s diehard Game of Thrones fans who admire her strength and power as a female and they want to firmly stand behind her.”
If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that “it’s impossible to sway an entire internet to think a certain way,” McPherson said, adding “there is no PR playbook for controlling public opinion.” So when things go wrong, they go very wrong. “I find the only way to get through these scandals when they happen is to have a response that is as close to the truth as possible. People are expecting the truth and if it’s not given to them, they will uncover it on their own.”
Silence, in Turner’s case, ended up winning out in the end — “one PR tactic that stood tall,” McPherson explained. “Truth tellers have the luxury of sitting comfortably in their reality. By Sophie Turner not speaking out while all this mud was being thrown her way, she chose to not engage in the back and forth. Her silence was the loudest message in the entire week.”