OMAHA, NE—Responding to the negative press coverage Tom Cruise has received in recent weeks, University of Nebraska financial-aid clerk Ben Matherson, 28, announced Monday that things would be different if he were the megastar's publicist.

Tom Cruise's armchair publicist, Ben Matherson.

"Tom is a force of nature, no question," Matherson announced from his one-room efficiency apartment in the Cornhusker State. "You can't control him, but you have to at least steer him in the right direction. That's how you handle a star of his caliber."

According to Matherson, Cruise's "PR nightmare" began with an article in the German publication Der Spiegel, which reported that Cruise arranged to have a tent for the Church of Scientology set up on the set of War Of The Worlds.

"I have no idea what he was thinking, promoting Scientology when he's supposed to be shooting a film," said Matherson, who was on a movie set only once, when he took the Universal Studios tour in 1988.

Matherson added: "I would have redirected the questioning the moment the reporter started asking Tom about religion, or maybe just said, 'Okay, let's wrap this up.'"

Although not a regular reader of Der Spiegel, Matherson said he gleaned information about the publication from the celebrity-news program Insider, which he typically watches alone in his room while eating cold cereal.

Matherson cited Cruise's May 23 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show as the first sign the popular actor was in need of some guidance.

"Even with a guy like Tom Cruise, who makes $20 million a movie, you've got to lay down the law," said Matherson, who is not in a supervisory position in the financial-aid office. "I would have told him, 'Lay off the poetry. Stick with the smile. The smile is working for you.'"

Matherson said he has some ideas for keeping Cruise "on message."

An example of the sort of erratic behavior that has Matherson worried.

"I would want to work out a hand-signal system with Tom, so I could motion to him from backstage when he was getting out of control," Matherson said.

Matherson's friends and coworkers report that the file clerk often makes comments drawing on his knowledge of the celebrity world, which he monitors from this ensconced position in the center of America's cattle-producing heartland.

"Back when Britney Spears wed and divorced her childhood friend all within a 24-hour period, Ben used to lean over the countertop at the office and shake his head," said Shelly Johansen, who has worked as a file clerk in the financial-aid office since 1992. "He thought it was a really bad move for her."

Cruise is currently in Italy shooting Mission Impossible 3 and out of the public eye, which Matherson believes is "for the best."

"I don't know if Tom realizes what a headache he can be for a PR man," Matherson said, repeating comments he made earlier in the day to coworker Gary Siebold. "A good image buffing isn't gonna do the trick at this point. We need to talk damage control."

The lifelong Nebraska resident's recommendations for Cruise include pulling him off the interview circuit for "dehydration and exhaustion," then spending a day or two "giving him some talking points."

Jessica Furstrom, a receptionist from nearby Lincoln and a longtime armchair publicist for Courtney Love, said Matherson "has a long row to hoe" with Cruise.

"I went through a lot of this same type of thing with Courtney," Furstrom said. "These problems don't just go away by themselves. The hard work of repairing a star's image has to get done. And thank God there are publicists to do it."