PRWeek.com exclusive: Perp walk can offer chance for contrition, humility

Don't punch out a cameraman. Watch your language. And, please, no middle fingers.

Don't punch out a cameraman. Watch your language. And, please, no middle fingers.

Such is the advice from PR professionals for those mighty folk like Martha Stewart and Ken Lay who have fallen and, as part of their penance, undergone the public spectacle of the "perp walk" - that often slow, always media-heavy suspect's 's shuffle from the car to the courthouse or from the mansion to the police cruiser. Though far from a crowning achievement, the perp walk doesn't have to be a stroll of shame. Public figures like celebrities and corporate titans may want to use the opportunity to elicit empathy from John and Jane Q. Public during their "perp walks," according to PR pros. They want the public to look kindly on their contrite selves, to see a face and a demeanor on the famous accused that says, "Hey, I'm innocent, sure, but I'm also a bit humbled from having to make this trek at all." Played right, the perp walk can help the accused win in the court of public opinion regardless of what a court of law eventually decides. Played wrong - say, by flipping the bird, shouting obscenities, smugly sneering at the cameras - and the public will condemn even a once-lovable famous figure for, well, acting like he or she is above the law. "It really is a matter of trying to show that you are like everyone else," says Rachel Weingarten, president of GTK Marketing Group in New York. "The truth is you have fallen off your pedestal some. You probably want to reflect that in the way that you hold yourself, in the way that you dress. I'm not saying go buy K-Mart, but maybe tone it down a little bit." If you don't, Weingarten warns, expect a backlash. Take Martha Stewart - the once-billionaire domestic goddess now an indicted felon for obstruction of justice, perjury, and securities fraud. During her months-long trial amid a media circus, Stewart would walk from her car to the federal courthouse door in lower Manhattan with certain accoutrement befitting her income level. Not a savvy move, says Weingarten, especially when she showed up clutching a $6,000 handbag. "Suddenly she's caught doing something and people expect her to maybe have a little less hubris," Weingarten says, "[and] not to be showing that kind of handbag to go to court with where she's going to be judged. Because, theoretically, she's going to be judged by her peers and I doubt any of her peers had a $6,000 handbag." The perp walk is nothing new. Various forms of it have appeared throughout history: The Puritans slapping people into the stocks in the public square. The guillotine chopping through French aristocracy in the middle of Paris. Richard Nixon staggering up the helicopter steps, smiling inappropriately, flashing twin victory signs at his moment of greatest defeat. "There's no real benefit to the public, no legal purpose," Houston defense lawyer Joel Androphy told the Houston Chronicle after former Enron CEO Ken Lay turned himself into the FBI on July 8. "It's just a throwback to the Puritan days, like public humiliation in the town square. Years ago you could get around this." You could find ways to trump the media, like going to the courthouse ahead of an indictment's announcement. You could quietly turn yourself in. Today, though, options like that are few and far between. Even judges have endorsed the perp walk as a way to curb crime. In September 2003, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a lower court's ruling in a case involving three Westchester County, NY, corrections officers who were not happy about being videotaped after their arrests on fraud charges. "The image of the accused being led away to contend with the justice system," the three-judge court ruled, "powerfully communicates government efforts to thwart the criminal element, and it may deter others from attempting similar crimes." Along with the law, the public seems to get a vicarious kick out of seeing giants fall - and the giants must adjust. Weingarten calls it "eating our own." "We're not happy that they make this much money," she says, "so when we see them in that way the best thing that they can do is again try to get the public to relate to them, try to get people to feel with them." If all else fails in the effort to dodge a perp walk, wear a good suit. It may lead to some better treatment at the hands of your captors. "It's always better to be arrested in a business suit," says Bonnie Russell, president of 1st Pick, a San Diego-based PR firm. "The deputies unconsciously classify those in their custody." Also, remember other simple PR advice. "Shouting obscenities - never a good move," Weingarten says. "Knocking out a cameraman - never a good idea." Covering your face with your cuffed hands or, say, a handy t-shirt? That's up to you. "Covering your face, that's an instinct," Weingarten says, "so I guess it's OK." In the end, a quiet dignity free of arrogance may be the best approach for running the perp walk's gauntlet. "The hang-dog, face-down, ducking-for-cover is a PR no-no," Russell says, "as the perp looks both ridiculous, and guilty - not exactly a winning combination."

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