The elephant in the room

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 best trial lawyers, like the best journalists, are storytellers.  And great storytelling has in it an element of magic.  It’s the magic of an illusionist whose hands call us to “look here” so convincingly that we’re unaware there might ever have been some other place to look.

Joel Brodsky, defense attorney in the Drew Peterson murder trial underway this week in Joliet, makes no secret of his love for media attention.  In that, Brodsky – who entertained questions from a half-dozen reporters at the Tesa Cigar Lounge Monday night – and his client are well-matched.  Peterson, who is not expected to take the stand in his own defense, has been at the center of a media circus since the disappearance of his fourth wife Stacy in 2007.

Stacy Peterson’s fate is, of course, the elephant in the room in the current trial, in which Drew Peterson is charged with the murder of this third wife, Kathleen Savio.

How does a great trial lawyer – or any highly effective communicator – deal with the elephant in the room?

First, acknowledge it.  Don’t pretend it isn’t there.  Don’t pretend it isn’t an elephant.  Consider the example of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and the issue of the candidate’s income taxes.  Romney’s wealth is the elephant in the room: he’s made a vast fortune through a business that many Americans negatively associate with “vulture capitalism.”  In pretending that the issue doesn’t exist and not releasing comprehensive information about his finances, Romney is feeding into this negative perception, rather than addressing it.

Second, own it.  It’s nearly impossible to convince someone that his perception or opinion is wrong.  Political examples notwithstanding, people just don’t reverse themselves that often and it’s exhausting and self-defeating to try to make them.  (Trust me on this one: I have a 2-year old.)  The thing to do, rather than waste your breath on an impossible to argument, is to give credit to the assessment: Yes, there is an elephant standing right over there beside the jury box.  You’re smart people; you know it’s there.

Third, park it and move on.  We’re going to have to deal with that elephant.  That’s the job of the animal control department and they’re on the case.  They’ve got a plan for luring that big guy out of here with a trail of peanuts.  But, just as those fine animal control officers have their job to do with that elephant, we have a job to do today as well.  We’ve got to look at the facts in this matter.  You can only tell your story, and work your magic, after dealing with the elephant in the room and making sure that everyone else is comfortable and in agreement that the elephant will, in fact, be dispatched.

These three steps work as well with reporters and constituents as they do with jury members.  Moving past denial and “spin,” into constructive engagement, you’ll find that you will get a lot further in dealing with those two-ton distraction situations.

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