Monthly Archives: June 2012

When news breaks, how to fix it?

Debra Pickett is president of Page 2 Communications (www.page2comm.com).  A former newspaper columnist and television commentator, Pickett offers consulting and training services to law firms and lawyers who deal with the media.  She writes here each week on topics related to Law and Media.  To learn more, reach her at deb@page2comm.com.

In the wake of Monday’s ruling on the Arizona immigration laws, as seemingly contradictory headlines popped up around the country, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza tweeted out the obvious question: “SCOTUS decisions are really not designed to be covered as breaking news, are they?”

No, they’re really not.

I still have flashbacks to one of TV news’ most awkward moments in recent memory, when NBC went live to the steps of the Supreme Court, where their analyst Dan Abrams was standing, with a just-released copy of the Bush v. Gore decision in his hand.  They were first with the news.  But, sadly, they had no idea what the news actually was.  Abrams was visibly struggling to read through the densely written opinions and dissents and figure out what the verdict actually was.  It was painful to watch.

So, too, yesterday, as MSNBC reported, “High Court Strikes Down Key Parts of Ariz. Immigration Law” and The New York Times posted, “Justices Uphold Key Part of Arizona Law,” you had to wonder if anything close to nuance would ever come to legal reporting in the mainstream press.

Let’s not hold our collective breath.

So, how, then, can you make sure that the media accurately conveys the verdict in your case?

The answer is that you need to do it for them.  And you need to do it quickly and simply.

Too often, law firms decide to send out a press release about a significant decision after the ruling comes down.  Then the attorney gives the details to a marketing person, who drafts a release and creates a press list and submits them back to the attorney for approval.  After a couple rounds of comments and wordsmithing edits, the press release gets sent out.  And no one does anything with it because it’s already old news.

If you want to be part of the news cycle as it happens, your press release must be ready to go in advance.  You need an electronic, fill in the blank template, with pre-approved language to drop in as appropriate.  And you need a contact list, complete with Twitter handles, mobile phone numbers and (least important) e-mail addresses, that’s already preloaded into your smart device so that you can quickly populate that press release and blast it out to the reporters following your case with the touch of a button.  If it takes more than five minutes, you’re doing it wrong.

So, what do you say?  Do you have your Mad Libs pad ready?  Start drafting that press release now – and don’t forget the headline! – and be ready to make news.  Reporters will be grateful, your media visibility will improve and you’ll get all the psychic benefits of doing a little positive visualization.

Children’s advocates, free speech supporters clash over sex offenders’ use of social media

Marty Dolan, principal at Dolan Law, and his associate Karen Munoz represent victims of wrongful death and personal injury. His column “Law and Wellness” appears in the Chicago Lawyer and her column appears regularly in the Law Bulletin. This week’s blog is written by Karen Munoz.

A pending case in Indiana, which will grapple with issues already considered in federal courts in Nebraska and Louisiana, pits an intriguing clash between the interests in protecting children from sexual predators and the safeguarding of free speech. The case concerns a First Amendment challenge by a convicted, but now released, sex offender, to a law that prohibits convicted sex offenders from using instant messaging services, joining chat rooms or social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

In Nebraska, a federal court struck down large parts of a similar bill, holding that it unduly violated the sex offenders’ First Amendment rights. In Louisiana, another federal judge tossed such a bill, holding that it “unreasonably restricts many ordinary activities that have become important to everyday life.” However, just last month, the Louisiana governor signed into law a revised version of the bill, which narrows its application to sites that are primarily used for socializing.

In the Indiana case, the plaintiff was convicted on two counts of child exploitation, served three years in prison and was released. The ACLU, who is bringing the challenge, argues that the law denies the plaintiff a number of essential freedoms. They argue he can’t comment on news stories online or send questions to television debates because it requires a Facebook account to do so. Similarly, he can’t contact his family from out of state using social media, supervise his son’s internet usage or set up a business profile on LinkedIn. Given that social media use is so prevalent in today’s world and the ban hits people who are no longer in prison or on probation, the ACLU argues it is a violation of the First Amendment.

So there is an intriguing clash in the case between two very important interests, namely protecting children from exploitation by sexual predators online and protecting the right to free speech in the digital age. In response to the arguments of the ACLU, advocates of these restrictions argue that all sexual predators use social media now. Social media enables sexual predators and pedophiles to have unsupervised interactions with children which they can easily use to take advantage of those children, while numerous other forms of communication, which don’t pose the same threat of harm like the telephone, are still available to them. Further, supporters argue that free speech is not really restricted by denying use of social media because sex offenders can still enjoy all of the freedoms of the First Amendment. If they want to congregate, debate, demonstrate etc., they still can.

One thing that makes these cases very interesting is that there is no immediately apparent solution. Pedophiles’ use of chat rooms and social networking sites is a big problem in our society, and one which is obviously worthy of the legislature’s attention. However, use of social media today is almost ubiquitous and a blanket ban on registered sex offenders may represent too sweeping a restriction on the rights of those persons. One thing that is for sure, though, is the issue is not going away any time soon.

Waiting decades for justice

Elizabeth Yore was special counsel to Harpo Inc., Oprah Winfrey’s production company. She also served as child protection counsel on a range of matters, including at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in South Africa. Yore was general counsel of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. She served as the general counsel and director of the International Division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia. She consults on child protection issues with corporations, non profits and international child abuse cases and issues.

“No legacy is so rich as honesty.”   William Shakespeare

The monster is now exposed and will spend the rest of his life behind bars.  If 10 victims were named in the criminal complaint, many more are sitting on the sidelines suffering in silence, but secretly thinking, “Jerry finally got his.”

Yet again, the nation learned about the behavior of a child predator. Unlike the prevailing fiction of a creep in a raincoat, this predatory pedophile was a “pillar of the community” who was a man with “a heart of gold.” No one wanted to believe that a successful coach and seemingly caring philanthropist could be a pedophile. The friends and coworkers of Sandusky reinforced their denial with endless excuses: he was too busy to molest children; he gave his life for at risk kids; he was a living saint always helping troubled boys.

Defense witnesses testified that they never saw anything “inapprop riate between Jerry and the boys” from Second Mile, as if predators commit sexual child assaults in front of friends. Child sex abuse occurs behind close doors, in empty basements, in locked bedrooms, always in secret.  The fact that there were eye-witness accounts of abuse from a Penn State janitor and from Mike McQuery, a grad student coach, is highly unusual. Those rare eye-witness accounts demonstrate the recklessness and predatory nature of Sandusky’s brazen behavior. 

So many opportunities missed  when the university, Second Mile, child protective services and even law enforcement could have stopped Sandusky, but chose not to care. So many powerful people should have intervened and exposed his sexual rampage of young boys. No heroes stood up for children and against the powerful Sandusky.  Besides the heroism of the victims who testified, the single mothers stand out, and alone,  for their bravery to contact law enforcement authorities about Sandusky.

Unlike the Penn State community, they weren’t impressed or afraid of Sandusky. They simply wanted justice for their children and to stop this man from abusing other children.

Countless Sanduskys  are roaming among us in schools, in our community and in our families. These guys are smart, manipulative and in “respectable” jobs. Many are “pillars in the community” who use their power to deflect any suspicion. How do we stop them? Listen to children and look for the subtle signs of child abuse. Children must be believed and we must shout from the rooftops until the police arrest these guys and bring them to justice.

When society’s protective instinct for children is stronger than its denial, only then, will children be saved from this daily nightmare. The inestimable damage done by Sandusky robbed his victims of their precious and deserved innocence.  Some of his victims were in trouble with the law, others suffered from addictions and other dysfunctional behaviors. Here is the fallout of child abuse: When boys are abused, their pain is manifested outwardly toward the society that failed to protect them. The scourge and shame of sexual abuse lasts a lifetime, damaging their dreams, their relationships and their lives. Sexual abuse, left hidden and untreated, will contaminate the fabric of our country.

The cameras and reporters will soon leave the courthouse at Bellefonte, Pa., and move on to report the next “breaking story.” The case of Sandusky provides the country an opportunity to stop, wake up and insist that children must be a priority. Adults must be vigilant and protective of children. They must care enough to report suspected abuse. They must care more about children than sports, or celebrity, or money, or power.

Levaraging Your Reputation: Make releases matter

Tom Ciesielka is president of TC Public Relations (www.tcpr.net). Tom has over 25 years of marketing and public relations experience, working with individual lawyers and midsize law firms. He is also a former board member of the Legal Marketing Association in Chicago and has spoken at Chicago Bar Associations CLE programs. Reach him at tc@tcpr.net.

I don’t know if people are naïve or are trying to be obnoxious, but sometimes I’m surprised by the vapid or brash styles of press releases that are sent out, even by more seasoned pros. I’ve been thinking about this lately because sometimes we’re in such a rush to get out a press release when there’s an important development in a case, that we have to be extra careful to make sure that we’re being responsible with the presentation and professionalism of what we write.

It’s something we all have to think about: what are we communicating when we send out a press release, not just in terms of content, but in the reason we’re sending it out? An extremely negative example of a press release that should have never seen the light of day came from what a writer called the “Douchebag CEO” who really had nothing to report. He just wanted to appear in the media somehow, and it ended up giving him negative publicity. Actually, by linking to the article I’m also giving him exposure, but let him be an example of what to never do.

Here are a few things you should do when you craft a press release:

1)      Make sure it fits the news. This should be common sense, but some people are so desperate for media attention, they’ll put out a press release without paying attention to the news, which doesn’t put the information in any context. Even if you have a seemingly obscure case or have made some discoveries that seem to be for a narrow audience, find the news within the sphere that your work. Check more specialized publications and websites to see what the latest news is, and create a press release that would be relevant to what’s going on. Otherwise, the journalist will quickly delete what you’ve sent.

2)      State the facts. Some people write press releases that sound more like editorials. The first paragraph should give all the basic facts of a case, and as the press release continues, the information can be better explained. The editorializing should come in a separate paragraph in the form of a quote. Let the media decide what angle they want. You’re there to provide information, and your quoted opinion can help them see what your perspective is so that they can contact you for further clarification.

3)      Use the audience’s language. Attorneys are excellent writers and pay attention to detail, skills which, of course, are valuable to being successful in your practice. However, at times it’s better to simplify communication so that a wider audience would be able to understand what you’re saying. Sometimes websites simply take your press release and post it as-is, which means their readers are going to have instant access to your ideas. If you’re trying to communicate with people who are not attorneys and perhaps don’t have the high level of education that you have, then look at what you’ve written and see if it may be too complex for them to understand quickly. One way to see if your press release is easily comprehensible is to give it to someone in your firm who is not an attorney. If they have to ask you questions for clarification, then it could mean that the press release may not be appropriate for a wider audience. I’m not saying to “dumb down” anything, but to break down concepts and information so that your message is clear.

Whatever you do, make sure to keep communication professional, not tacky or irrelevant like the desperate attention-seekers tend to be. You can still appear intelligent and approachable in your press release if you choose effective ways to express your ideas.

Attorneys in Transition: Use the buddy system when you go networking

Nick Augustine is the principal of Chicago’s Augustine Legal Public Relations and he works for the Bryan Law Group, a full service boutique family practice in DuPage County. Nick teaches law firms and their staff how to get more clients as he helps attorneys share their knowledge, skills and abilities. Nick earned a communications and rhetorical studies degree from Marquette University and a law degree from The John Marshall Law School where he is an active Alumni Board member.

There are several reasons to use the buddy system when you go networking. Some people do not like networking events where they are not going to know many people. Attending events with a colleague offers the opportunity to chat with your friend and compare notes. You will also be able to laugh and engage in conversation with someone you know. Another benefit is that people you meet are more likely to remember two or more people from an office whom they meet as a team.

When I first started networking, I attended events my boss suggested I attend. At first, I was nervous because I might not know anybody and would not know what to share to represent my office. It is always easier to attend an event with someone else from your office. Networking in pairs helps reduce anxiety.

If you travel to the event with a friend or colleague, you can chat about the people you met on the way home or afterward. At a few points, you might split apart, work the room and meet a few different people you can share. If someone impresses you both, it makes sense to schedule a follow up call or coffee meeting. Think of the networking as a screening for new people with whom you would like to get to know.

Don’t you hate awkward silence? If you attend an event with a friend then you can always shift to work chatter or the weather so you are not stuck in a corner not having anything worthwhile to say to the salesperson who keeps talking about nothing in particular. In addition, when you are engaged in friendly conversation you look more approachable to others. Just make sure not to exclude others. 

While I don’t have the research or data to support my claim, it makes sense that peoples’ brains work a little harder to save the memory of two people, where they work and what they do. The process of splitting and storing information puts more attention on you. Be part of the friendly team of lawyers from that midsizedplaintiffs’ firm and the people you met will remember particular traits about you and are more likely to remember you later.

Remember, if you come home with a huge stack of business cards you are doing it wrong. Only give out cards to people who will remember you later and only collect cards from people you actually want to remember. Networking and referral building are function of quality, not necessarily quantity.

Lessons from the Roger Clemens case: When the verdict isn’t all that matters

Debra Pickett is president of Page 2 Communications (www.page2comm.com).  A former newspaper columnist and television commentator, Pickett offers consulting and training services to law firms and lawyers who deal with the media.  She writes here each week on topics related to law and media.  To learn more, reach her at deb@page2comm.com.

So, the jury said “not guilty.”  But, somehow, in that other forum – the one known as the “court of public opinion,” which always seems to be in session – the verdict is a little less definitive.  How does a defendant move on from a high-profile case that just won’t die?

Pitching great Roger Clemens, and the long saga of accusations involving accusations that he used performance-enhancing drugs, offers a fascinating case study.

Clemens was named in the infamous Mitchell Report as someone who’d taken anabolic steroids.  His former trainer Brian McNamee offered detailed testimony about all the particulars of Clemens’ alleged doping. Testifying before Congress in 2008, Clemens firmly denied these allegations under oath.  Afterwards, congressional leaders refered his case to the Justice Department, based on their suspicion that he had perjured himself before their committee.  Clemens was indicted in August 2010 on six felony counts involving perjury, false statements and obstruction of Congress.  (We’re all going to ignore the obvious jokes about lying to Congress being a crime and the need to prosecute a whole host of folks over there for obstruction. Right?)

Anyway, the point is that these allegations – and the general public’s conviction that they were probably true, even if unproven – hung around.  And around.  There was a mistrial, a whole series of mini-scandals and delays, and, finally, just this week, a verdict: not guilty on all six counts.  Still, for Clemens – and many similarly situated defendants – the assumption of his guilt still shadows him.

Clemens becomes eligible to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this year.  But, despite his sterling career and the not guilty verdict, the pundits seem to agree that Clemens won’t make the cut.  As one sportswriter put it, “Cooperstown’s voters carry a much lower burden of proof” than federal court.

 So, how does Clemens move on?

First, he needs to declare the subject closed.  His post-verdict press conference should stand as the last public comment he’ll make on the whole matter.  This is tougher than it sounds; we all have an impulse to defend ourselves, to keep talking and explaining and persuading.  But, no matter how convincing we think our arguments are, at this point in a scandal they can only serve one purpose: keeping the story alive.  The way to kill the story is to stop offering new comments on it.  A reporter can only do so many one-sided articles before moving on to more fertile (i.e., chatty and quotable) matters.

 Next, he must change the conversation.  If Clemens’ image is to be rehabilitated, we need to see him doing something totally different.  This takes time and it takes real work – we’re not talking about a Kardashian-level of superficial change.  Instead, Clemens should look to find a purpose or a cause or an enterprise that he can pour himself into with the same dedication he once applied to perfecting his fast ball.  And then, when he’s got a real accomplishment to talk about, he should reach out to the media and public to do just that.

Case shows difficulty in preventing online abuse

Marty Dolan, principal at Dolan Law, and his associate Karen Munoz represent victims of wrongful death and personal injury. His column “Law and Wellness” appears in the Chicago Lawyer and her column appears regularly in the Law Bulletin. This week’s blog is written by Karen Munoz.

The Illinois Supreme Court recently handed down a decision in Bonhomme v. St. James (2012 IL 112393), an interesting case in which the plaintiff brought a claim for negligent misrepresentation, among other counts, against a defendant who had created a fictional online character called Jesse and formed an online relationship with the plaintiff, leading the plaintiff to believe Jesse was real person. While the legal issue to which the court devoted most of its attention concerned the abandonment of claims in amended complaints, it is the holding in relation to the negligent misrepresentation claim that provides us with more food for thought.

 The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim for negligent misrepresentation and the Illinois Appellate Court reversed. Ultimately, however, the Supreme Court reversed and affirmed its dismissal by the trial court.

In the case, the plaintiff and defendant were both members of an online chatroom about the western-style TV series, “Deadwood.” The defendant registered as a user of the site as ‘Jesse James’ and began chatting with, and emailing, the plaintiff. The plaintiff and the fictional Jesse, who the defendant led the plaintiff to believe was a real person, exchanged emails, personal photos, handwritten letters and gifts. The defendant even talked on the phone with the plaintiff, using voice-altering technology to disguise her female voice. Concurrently, the defendant maintained a personal relationship under the defendant’s own name.

The defendant created a fictional universe of 20 characters around Jesse including family members, an ex-wife and a therapist. On one occasion, they had planned to meet up but Jesse cancelled. The plaintiff and Jesse then planned to move in together but shortly before this was to take place, Jesse’s “sister,” Alice, informed the plaintiff that Jesse had died of liver cancer. She bolstered this fiction by communicating with the plaintiff through the other fictional characters about Jesse’s “death”.

The plaintiff was extremely traumatized by all of this and suffered from deep depression, headaches, exhaustion, insomnia and a recurring infection called MRSA (multidrug resistant staphylococcus aureus). Even after Jesse’s “death,” the defendant stayed in daily contact with the plaintiff and, at one stage, met up with the plaintiff to show her some of “Jesse’s favorite places” in her “home” in Colorado.

In affirming the dismissal of the count of negligent misrepresentation, the court engaged in an analysis of the history of the tort, which was based on cases involving business or financial transactions. In examining the jurisprudence of the state, the court observed that some cases recognized a cause of action in settings which were not strictly “commercial” or “financial,” such as the agency-assisted abortion. However, those cases did have a commercial element in that agency-assisted abortion is a highly regulated activity with a business element.

Unfortunately for the plaintiff, the instant case was found to be a “purely personal” one, exhibiting all the characteristics of a personal human relationship, but lacking any commercial or financial element which would bring it within the ambit of the tort of negligent misrepresentation. The court did express its regret at the suffering of the plaintiff and suggested the availability of recovery under other torts. However, it unanimously ruled that recovery for negligent misrepresentation was not possible.

The kind of relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant in the case may seem very strange to many of us. However, while the world of what might be called “traditional online dating” is ever-expanding, there is also a whole other universe where different kinds of relationships can be formed. Many hugely popular online media exist where people have fictional profiles or “avatars” and, as this case shows, there is huge room for manipulation or exploitation of users of those sites.

 I recently blogged about legislation introduced in Illinois regulating online dating websites. While that is fraught with difficulty, an effective way of preventing such abuses that take place through other sites that are not strictly for dating is even more unclear. Sadly, we may not have heard the last of this type of case.