The real message from Angelina Jolie….

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

Most of the news relating to Angelina Jolie and her recent surgery announcement focus, as they should, on Jolie’s health and bravery. But I think there’s another part to the story as well…

A deep, murky well of cancer runs through my family. Both my grandmothers, who died well before I was born, faced breast cancer. Two maternal aunts also had the disease, one when she was in her 30s. (Paradoxically, she is only one of her generation still alive at the age of 90.) A maternal cousin — who’s roughly my age — has also had breast cancer although there appears to be no genetic link, no lurking BRCA1 gene mutation. My father died with prostate cancer.

Thus, I read about Angelina Jolie’s medical decisions — a double mastectomy and removal of her ovaries and fallopian tubes — with more than the usual interest. I’m not interested that she’s a star. Nor do I usually watch the the type of movies she performs in. And I really don’t care what she wears or what makeup she uses. But I’m impressed that she’s using her star power to communicate an important health message so clearly and compellingly.

But here’s the most interesting thing about the story. Jolie’s op-ed piece in the New York Times was clearly written by a skilled ghost writer. (How can I tell? No non-professional writer would produce a piece at a grade 7 level with an average of only 14.31 words per sentence!) And why did she do it? Partly, to help other women, I think. But also to maintain control.

This is the message that crisis managers always give executives. Get in front of the crisis. Retain control! Jolie surely didn’t want TMZ or the National Enquirer poking about her health affairs. By reporting on herself, she was able to make exactly the choices she wanted. She not only took control of her body, she also took control of the media. Do you see a theme here?

If your company or organization is facing trouble, just as Jolie was facing potential medical trouble, don’t let others tell you what to do. Break the news first. It may be painful. But not half as painful as having someone else do it.

By the way, did you know that most women have an inaccurate perception of their risk for breast cancer and may sometimes greatly overestimate their risk? Furthermore, researchers have shown that important information about the relative rarity of Jolie’s situation has not been communicated in many of the stories about her.