Courtroom coverage has boomed since OJ's white Bronco zipped across TV sets everywhere. And ever since, lawyers and crime reporters have come to rely upon the help of PR people.As far as the media is concerned, crime pays. The public has always been fascinated by crime, and the more heinous and sensational the act, the greater the interest. Having figured this out long ago, the media devotes ample resources to covering crime and court cases.
But thanks to cases such as the OJ Simpson trial (which generated a spike in viewers and readers from the beginning of the televised car chase to the surprising verdict), crime and court reporting seem to have taken on even more importance. "Any high-profile criminal case is going to draw viewership on cable news,
says Michael Frisby, an SVP at Porter Novelli's Washington, DC office. "And that's made police and court reporting more prominent in newspapers.
That trend is likely to continue as reporters flock to the Michael Skakel murder trial in Connecticut, and the Robert Blake case in LA (see PR Technique, p.18).
If there is a complaint about criminal and court journalists, it's the tendency to sensationalize. But Larry Kamer, chairman of the San Francisco-based Kamer Consulting Group, suggests that it's generally not the reporter's fault. "Most reporters who are sitting in county courthouses or police stations are real professionals who have been at it for a long time,
he says. "The question of what kind of headline to attach or what kind of words to emphasize is usually done by the editors, and it can be based on other considerations such as perceived public interest or circulation concerns. The old news adage, 'If it bleeds, it leads,' remains valid today."
Lou Colasuonno, a partner with strategic communications firm Westhill Partners, and former editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and Daily News, says that while crime and court reporting remains a staple of most media outlets, the beat has undergone several changes in the past 20 years.
"At one time, it was just network TV news, which was just a half hour to an hour a night. The public perception was left almost entirely to the print media,
he says. "Clearly, that's changed."
Perhaps the biggest evolution has been the rise of televised trials on Court TV and, in some cases, other media outlets. If the OJ Simpson trial proved anything, it's that viewers are interested not only in the verdict, but also in the day-to-day legal wranglings.
The stuff of fact and fiction alike
Rita Barry-Corke, executive producer of Court TV's Catherine Crier Live, points out the interest in crime and courts has spilled over into entertainment.
She cites the popularity of TV shows and movies like CSI and Murder by Numbers, which delve into the details of forensics and other aspects of the criminal justice process. But Barry-Corke also notes that Court TV, while a news network, is in many ways the ultimate form of another popular genre: reality TV. "We're there as these stories unfold, and we provide all the details that make you want to go deep into it,
she says. "Court TV is the only place that gives you unfiltered reality TV."
With the increase in coverage of criminal and court stories, there has also been a greater understanding of how the legal process is influenced by the so-called "court of public opinion,
and the role PR can play in shaping it. "It used to be that the defense didn't understand the media,
says Colasuonno. "Now the defense won't go into a major case without at least consulting a top PR pro."
In many ways, the rise of PR linked to private-practice lawyers has boosted the avenues of where crime and court reporters can get their stories.
"Everybody is going to get the same batch of information from the police or DA,
Frisby says. "But what the really good reporters do is tap into the lawyers involved on the other side."
Frisby, a former reporter with The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Plain Dealer, and others, represented Chandra Levy's family last summer, and was at least partly responsible for turning a local missing-person case into a national story.
Porter Novelli set up the interview that led to The Washington Post article that first publicly confirmed the relationship between Levy and Rep. Gary Condit. "The day the story appeared, Condit went to the police and changed his story, and acknowledged he'd had a relationship,
Frisby says, adding that every time a major story ran on the case, there was a flood of calls offering information on Levy's disappearance.
Frisby says crime reporters have gradually overcome their biases against PR, and are now enthusiastic to talk with PR people, provided they can deliver important information. "Our goal is the same as law enforcement, and probably the crime reporter, which is to figure out how to get to the bottom of what actually happened,
Court TV's Barry-Corke echoes that assessment, saying her network is open to calls from PR pros. But, she adds, "I think it's really important for them to understand the show they're pitching and to make sure, for example, that their client can give specific insight into a case we're currently airing."
Interest creates opportunity
Jane Wesman, president of New York-based Jane Wesman Public Relations, claims that the rise of cable and talk radio, and their devotion of weeks or even months to a criminal case, is a huge opportunity for anyone who can offer insightful commentary. She represents authors, and says, "It's a really good strategy, particularly for fiction writers, to present them as experts in forensics or detective work, or what goes on in police departments or the courts."
At one point, Wesman represented LA police detective turned author Mark Fuhrman and his Murder in Brentwood book that came out after Simpson was acquitted of criminal charges. "My biggest problem when dealing with Fuhrman was negotiating with all the shows that wanted exclusives,
"We had calls from Larry King Live, Oprah, the Today show, Good Morning America, and 20/20. There was such strong interest, it wasn't just shows that cover crime."
Frisby experienced a similar deluge. "In the middle of the Levy case," he says, "in the course of a single day, I got calls from Larry King, Connie Chung, and Matt Lauer.
He adds that it's often the case that when a crime story reaches a certain prominence, it's taken away from the cops and court writers, and given to star reporters.
Peter McCue, SVP and director of Fleishman-Hillard's special situations group in New York, cautions there is a dangerous trend of focusing too much on the media and the court of public opinion rather than the actual legal battle. "We've put neon lights on it and turned it into a game show,
he says. "The main thing to keep remembering is that ultimately you want the outcome to be either a victory in the courtroom or a settlement you can accept."
While there are some differences between an individual in legal trouble and a corporation fighting a criminal or civil court battle, Harlan Loeb, national director of Hill & Knowlton's litigation communications practice, claims there are also many similarities. For one thing, while the legal system presumes innocence until proven guilty, the public - and by extension, the media - often feels both individuals and companies charged with wrongdoing are guilty until vindicated by the courts.
Loeb says the only way to combat this perception is to reach out to key media outlets through meetings, white papers, and other traditional PR tools, and explain the legal situation and your client's situation without revealing too much of the potential evidence or legal strategies. "The earlier you can educate the media about a legal situation,
he says, "the more likely you are to get positive traction among ordinary people."
WHERE TO GO
Newspapers: New York Post; New York Daily News; The Washington Post; LA Times; Chicago Tribune; Chicago Sun Times; USA Today
Magazines: National Enquirer; Star!; Vanity Fair; Rolling Stone; Esquire; Time ; Newsweek
Industry Titles: Legal Times; American Lawyer; National Law Journal; The Reporter; Daily Journal (SF and LA); New York Law Journal
TV & Radio: CNN; Court TV; Fox News; CNBC; E!; MSNBC; 20/20; National Public Radio
Websites: Law.com; Salon.com; CourtTV.com; SmokingGun.com.