Category Archives: Debra Pickett

Editorial boards cling to last remnants of old media power

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.

There’s significant consensus around the idea that newspaper political endorsements don’t really matter.  Survey respondents pretty consistently tell pollsters that they take of the word of Oprah Winfrey or, should Oprah not be available, their other religious leader, far more seriously than they would an editorial from their local paper.  In a survey taken during the last presidential election, 69 percent of voters polled said newspaper endorsements have “no effect” on their vote.  Indeed, a number of major newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and, for a while, the Chicago Sun-Times, declared themselves to be out of the endorsement business all together.

Still, newspapers do make news.  After all, someone has to give the 24-hour cable guys something to talk about.  In the current presidential campaign, the endorsements of papers in battleground states have been considered newsworthy, as have a few “reversals,” such as the one by the Orlando Sentinel, which endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 and is now backing his challenger instead, and the surprising decision of the Salt Lake Tribune editors to pass over Utah’s “favorite adopted son,” Mitt Romney, in favor of the president.  There’s no concrete evidence that these editorials have changed anyone’s mind, but the Orlando Sentinel and Salt Lake Tribune pieces in particular have “gone viral,” circulating far beyond the papers’ regular readers and contributing to each candidate’s sense of momentum during the last weeks leading up to Election Day.

For this reason, the presidential candidates still seem to consider lengthy, in-depth interviews with newspaper editorial boards to be good investments of their time. 

But, for the rest of us, with a case to litigate or a matter before the Zoning Committee, is reaching out to a newspaper editorial board worth the effort?

Surprisingly, yes.

While voters in national elections typically are not influenced by newspaper endorsements, surveys show that on local issues – from the election of judges and city officials to popular referenda – citizens still trust newspapers as their key sources of information.

Making your case to a newspaper editorial board requires no small amount of effort.  First, you have to get on their calendar (one of few media relations tasks that is almost worth outsourcing to a specialized consultant).  Then, you’ve got to show up, in person, and devote an hour or more to briefing the board members on your issue, an experience something like offering oral arguments before the Supreme Court, but with coffee.  Then, after taking more detailed questions than you ever thought possible, you’ll leave the building with no sense of when, or even whether, the paper might run an editorial about your issue.

It’s a big investment of your energy, but, if it pays off (and the odds are pretty good that it will), it will be a huge boost to your credibility and a tremendous influence among folks concerned about your issue.  This is one area where the power of the old media still holds fast and, even better, can be amplified by new and social media, through posting and tweeting the positive editorial to additional audiences.

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Dukakis in the Tank: What we all can learn from campaign media fails

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.

Remember Michael Dukakis in the tank?

That image of the presidential candidate, looking goofy and inept, solidified the impression that many Americans already had of Dukakis: he wasn’t tough enough to be commander-in-chief.

It comes to mind, of course, this week as another former Massachusetts governor is running for president and has made a similar blunder, with remarks that seem dismissive of 47-percent of Americans: the ones who aren’t making a lot of money.  In hindsight, media stories like these are often remembered as key turning points.  And, indeed, should Gov. Mitt Romney lose in November, pundits are sure to point to the release of these remarks (and his handling of their release to the public) as the moment when it all went wrong.

For many people I talk to, this is the sort of thing that informs their notion of my firm’s work: they see media strategy as the art of avoiding bad press and spinning your way out of it when it does happen.

In my view, though, our real work is quite different from this.  I don’t spend a lot of time or energy worrying about “bad press.”  In fact, when there’s a media story out that paints one of my clients in a negative light, my usual advice is pretty simple: keep your head down and let’s move on.  Our work together is about defining the story you want told and getting it into the right hands – the best-suited reporter or producer – to communicate it to the broadest audience possible.  I’m paid, in other words, for good press.

Effective media strategy, defining yourself for the public by telling your story the way you want it told, is a kind of inoculation against bad press.  And epic media fails, like Dukakis in a tank, aren’t so much about the single negative image or story that takes on a life of its own as they are about the vacuum – the lack of a positive self-definition – that the negative item grows to fill.

Tell your own story in a clear and compelling way and the public won’t be swayed by a single misstep.  But fail to define yourself and your blunders will define you, especially when they confirm people’s suspicions.  If Romney and his campaign team had been pro-active about telling the right story about his wealth and business success (like, say, how the American system made it possible and how, in recognition of his great luck, Romney has always made it a point to mentor others), his comments that seem to dismiss retired and lower-income folks as “victims,” wouldn’t reverberate in the way they are now.

The time for a media strategy is before the bad press, not after.

What does ‘venue’ mean in an age of social media?

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.

It’s been a year since 19-year-old Amanda Bach, a recent graduate of Portage High School in Northwest Indiana, was found dead.  The case, in which another teen, Dustin McCowan, the son of a Crown Point police officer, is charged with murder, has been the focus of intense fascination and speculation, with rumors swirling about conspiracies and false leads.

It is, in short, the sort of case – obsessively focused on by folks in one community – that would seem ripe for a change of venue.  And McGowan’s attorneys, John Vouga and Nicholas Barnes, made that argument at a pre-trial hearing in August.  But Porter County Superior Judge William Alexa denied the request, announcing in the packed courtroom, “I think you can get a fair trial in this town, even with the publicity.”

The defense isn’t sure that’s true and they’ve filed motions for an out-of-county jury to be seated.  There’s not much they can do, though, about the pretrial publicity that could be prejudicing potential jurors.  After all, the case is not just the talk of the diners and barber shops and beauty parlors in town.  It’s also a hot topic online and, especially, on social media.  The “Justice for Amanda” Facebook page has nearly 17,000 likes.  So the question of whether another community might be less mired in the details of the case is not exactly the right question: the community is not just a physical place anymore.  People around the country (and even the world, with dozens of folks in the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany also checking out the page) have access to the same hyper-local discussion of the case that Porter County residents do.

What can be done, then, to ensure that jury members come to the case without bias or preconceptions?

Some argue that we need professional jurors who understand the law and aren’t likely to be swayed by external factors such as pretrial publicity.  Others suggest that rigorous jury questionnaires and aggressive voir dire are sufficient to weed out those whose objectivity has been tainted by media or other communication about a high-profile case.

There is another possibility.

Consider, for a moment, the idea that the answer to this dilemma might be more pretrial communication, rather than less.  What if, instead of holding our noses at the thought of – gasp – trying cases in the media, we worked on finding appropriate forums for the discussion of issues in the news?  What if the press was held to a “bring at least as much light as heat” standard in its coverage?  What if social media sites offered moderation and education, rather than simply functioning as echo chambers?

Or, you know, we could just keep pretending that the current system is working perfectly well.

Out of context: When bad quotes happen to good people

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.

I’d barely had time to glance at the front page of the paper when I got the e-mail about it.

A friend and mentor had been quoted in a big article, but, rather than writing to her contacts to bring the story to our attention, she was, in fact, e-mailing everyone she could think of in order to disavow the quotes that had been attributed to her.

“I write to you to let you know that the quote was fabricated,” the message began, “In fact, the words were cherry-picked out of a sentence on a different topic and then ascribed to me …  As for the fragment quoted, it was in a completely different conversation, and was said not about [the subject of the article] or any individual for that matter.”

When I talk to lawyers about dealing with the media, this is their No. 1 fear: that something they say will be taken out of context or misinterpreted or “spun” in a way that could ultimately be harmful to their client.  It happens. 

When I was a reporter, I sometimes received story assignments from my bosses that came with a point of view already attached.  Once, early in my career, I was tasked with writing an article about a government commission on which appointed members, from both parties, were apparently having major ideological conflicts.  I spent the morning talking to people close to the commission and the members themselves and everyone I interviewed made a point of telling me how collegial things were, despite the different points of view.  They also acknowledged the depth of their philosophical divide.  The piece I wrote made no mention of the collegiality and, in fact, ran under a headline (written by a copy editor) that included the well-worn phrase “partisan bickering.”  It was as if the narrative of what was going on had already been formed and neither the facts on the ground, the people involved or even the reporter could change them.  I cringe at the memory of how I wrote that piece, poring over notes and tape to find words that fit the assignment I’d been given.

Later in my career, of course, I was better prepared to make sure that didn’t happen.  I was bold enough to tell editors, “there’s no story here,” or, at least, that the story they wanted to have wasn’t actually true.  Still, I was keenly aware of the pressure to produce the stories they (and our readers) expected.

Now, when I prepare clients for media interviews, I coach them on how to suss out a reporter’s agenda.  Sometimes, just asking “What is it that you’re looking for?” is enough.  Other times, when the agenda is less clear, it’s better to stick with a few key talking points (which we’ll have prepared in advance) and make no “off the cuff” answers.

Fear of being misquoted makes many leading professionals extremely media shy.  But it doesn’t have to stop you from getting your message out.  A little preparation, a little strategy and a little discipline will go along way in error-proofing your quotes.

New ABA model rules leave blogging v. advertising distinction murky

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.

Only eight years after the creation of Facebook, the American Bar Association has recognized social media as an important element in communicating with current and prospective clients.  Indeed, the model rules adopted at the annual meeting held here in Chicago earlier this month now include language that covers personal meetings, phone conversations and electronic communication.  The substance of the rules hasn’t changed: lying is bad and so is solicitation.  Also, telling secrets.

But the ABA missed an opportunity to clarify what has been a slight murky area in legal communication: blogging.

Specifically, is a blog an educational offering or an advertising venue?

Last year, Virginia attorney Horace Hunter received an admonition from his state’s bar association related to his “This Week in Richmond Criminal Defense” blog.  Though he maintained the blog, featured on his firm’s website, was simply an educational item, the bar association required him to add an attorney advertising disclaimer on the blog’s front page.

The message for conscientious attorneys (and their marketing folks) is clear: it’s best to err on the side of adding the disclaimer to your materials.

But the trickier, and more philosophically interesting, question remains unanswered.  What is advertising, really?

Traditionally, it’s not, say, authoring a prominently placed op-ed piece, even though doing so is clearly an activity that markets your firm, enhancing your reputation for expertise in a given area.  But it is distributing copies of that op-ed to an interest group whose members might be seeking legal representation in that field.

So, where, then, does tweeting out that same op-ed piece fall in the purely-informational-to-purely-promotional spectrum of activity?  The ABA isn’t offering any real guidance.

Does it matter, for example, if that organization happens to be following you on Twitter?  (And is there a substantive difference between a Twitter follower who found you, through a search, and a follower who was invited to follow you through a button on your webpage?)

For now, the best guidance on these questions is to try to follow the spirit of the ABA model rules (and ignore the nagging discomfort that this “know it when you see it” definition of advertising might inspire in you) by adding a disclaimer to any communication that you might reasonably expect to directly lead a prospective client to contact you.

Over the long term, though, it’s going to become essential to get more clarity on these guidelines.  Now that the ABA has acknowledged the existence of social media and other evolving forms of electronic communication, it’s time to lobby for the next step: a completely new generation of guidelines.

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.

Is hiring a PR Firm a bad PR move?

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.

Let’s begin by stipulating that, contrary to the popular saying, there actually is such a thing as bad PR.  (See: Cruise, Tom)

There are times, in life, when you just know that having your name in the paper is going to be bad news for your reputation.  Backing the car over that adorable, furry animal, newly listed on the endangered species registry, is not going to make you look good, even if the car was a hybrid and you were rushing your grandmother to the doctor at the time.

But what about the simple act of hiring (and presumably paying) a public relations firm?  Does contracting someone to help manage your reputation automatically imply that there’s a problem?

This week, the Wisconsin press was full of stories about how Gov. Scott Walker used money from a legal defense fund, established before his election to statewide office, to pay a PR firm.  There’s nothing illegal about him doing this and, in fact, it’s a fairly standard practice.  But the underlying message of the media stories was clear: Walker, in the very quotable characterization of Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski, had hit “a new low.”

The specter of “spin doctoring” haunts the public relations industry and, with it, the idea that paying a media consultant is, somehow, just a little bit dirty.  One of the most effective ways to characterize, say, a corporate defendant as a big, bad conglomerate is to attach the phrase “and their high-priced lawyers and big PR firm” to their name whenever possible.

So, is this an impossible Catch-22: that the clients who are most in need of help dealing with the press are also those who will be most thoroughly pummeled for procuring such help?

Fortunately, no.

There are any number of strategies for minimizing public attention to the fact that a media consultant has been added to your client’s team, but the first among them is correctly managing the contractual relationship, which should be created, whenever possible, between the attorney and the consultant, NOT directly between the client and the consultant.  In this manner, the work done on the client’s behalf can be protected as attorney-client work product and billing records can be kept more discretely.

When you, or your client, needs help dealing with the media, seek it out.  The right professionals can guide you through a crisis without making it worse.