Does PR matter in a Sandusky of a case?

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.

The news out of Centre County Court in Bellefonte, Pa., has looked uniformly bad for former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

This is, of course, to be expected: the prosecution is building its case and multiple accusers are taking the stand, one after the other.  From a purely lawyerly perspective, news reports about this early testimony shouldn’t matter: it’s only the jury that counts and they’re not following the sensational coverage.

But, in a case like this, a Sandusky of a case, if you will, the pure legalities are only one element of a robust defense.

Why worry about what the press has to say about your case?

First, let’s be selfish and focus on your and your firm’s reputation.  More than 250 reporters registered to attend the Sandusky proceedings and, while Judge John Cleland has backed off from his original ruling that would have allowed electronic communication in real time directly from the courtroom, we are seeing detailed retellings and analyses of each day’s testimony in media outlets around the country.  With an audience this broad, you want it to be clear that, no matter the case and no matter the outcome, you do excellent work.  As just one example: you want media reports to include the points you made on cross-examination.  The best way to insure that this happens is to communicate directly with a daily digest or summary distributed to the press room.

Beyond this, though, there is the matter of your client’s interests: legally and more broadly.  While many of us repeat the cliché that we don’t want to try a case in the media, in fact, media and public discussion of a high-profile case provides a strategic laboratory for testing the effectiveness of a number of arguments and lines of defense.  In monitoring press coverage of your case, you have the opportunity to see which tactics seem to gain traction and influence perceptions – and you can apply this learning, in real time, to the members of the jury.  If an argument is persuasive in the mainstream media, it is likely to be persuasive with jurors as well.

Additionally, of course, when you ensure that the facts of your case are well communicated and well understood, you smooth the way for a defendant to have a happy and productive life, post-trial.  You are, after all, your client’s best advocate, in every sense of the word.  Integrating your legal efforts with the media and public relations efforts of another team member – whether part of your firm’s staff, part of the client’s staff or an outside firm or consultant – offers a standard of care that demonstrates your commitment to clients well beyond a single matter or transaction.

And doing your best, no matter how bad things look – even Sandusky bad – is as fine an advertisement for you and your firm as you could ever hope to purchase.

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