Kobe Bryant's lawyers have shifted the media spotlight to the accuser, leaving the media to dig for dirt while Bryant's image gets valuable breathing room.So you've heard the latest in the Kobe Bryant sexual-assault trial - the lurid details of the prosecution's case and the insinuations about the sexual history of Bryant's accuser. You probably even have a few opinions on the matter. Everyone does. Was it a smart move for the defense to trash the young woman, or does it make Bryant look like a bigger brute? Should the media cover the alleged victim's sexual history? Or does that push us back into the era when women were viewed as at least partially responsible for being raped? There are a lot of questions, and a lot of new directions for the press and pundits to take the conversation after the preliminary hearing that happened earlier this month. For each of those questions, there are dozens of commentators willing to argue their position for hours - whether they are sitting on a stool in the local bar or ensconced on Court TV. And while what happens inside the courtroom must be the focus of Bryant's legal team, those new topics are the result of the opening moves of a communications strategy that is clearly aimed toward the general populace as much as it is toward the judge and jurors who will determine Bryant's fate if the issue goes to trial. "This case is being tried in the court of Fox News, CNN, and NBC as much as it's being tried by a courthouse in Colorado," points out Ronn Torossian, president and CEO of 5W Public Relations. Few doubt the truth of that analysis, least of all Bryant's legal team. Whether you believe it was brilliant or bumbling, defense attorney Pamela Mackey pushed media conversation about the story down a carefully chosen path with her courtroom antics, precisely to reach that general audience. Muzzled by a gag order, neither side has easy access to the court of public opinion. While that doesn't hurt the prosecution much, it's not good for the defense. Every day that the spotlight remained on Bryant was one more day of damage to his image, an image that is being evaluated daily by key audiences from potential jurors to corporate sponsors, and even teammates and family. The story is going to be the darling of radio, print, and broadcast media no matter what was said at the preliminary hearing. What the defense team did was give the numerous commentators something to comment on that wasn't Bryant. They moved the camera off their client, and onto themselves and the victim. "The sotto voce message here is [attorney Pamela Mackey] is turning herself into the bad guy in an effort to make Bryant the good guy, and that is a remarkable thing," says Richard Levick, president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, which handles PR for dozens of law firms. "Johnnie Cochran did the same thing." Taking control of the story In short, Bryant's legal team took control of a story that could easily have spiraled out of their grasp, and they did it with a single insinuation that the 19-year-old alleged victim may have had sex with three different men in as many days. That assertion will resonate the way Cochran's "if the glove doesn't fit" line did during OJ Simpson's murder trial. Perhaps not as catchy or visual - but certainly as powerful when it comes to creating doubt. Because for many, the mere suggestion that the victim has anything but a virginal sexual past is enough to tip the scale of justice in favor of the NBA's golden boy. The defense tactic also had a more long-term effect. For the next weeks and months, the tabloid media - unabashed collectors of lurid detail - will comb Colorado for dirt on the alleged victim. Perhaps it will only seep out via websites or other less-respected papers, but it will be out there. And if it gets enough credence and interest, the mainstream press will probably pick it up in some form. Before the preliminary hearing, the media seemed to have a collective restraint about details of the woman's life. Call it an evolving attitude about the way sexual-assault victims should be treated by media, or call it fear of backlash. Either way, Bryant's defense team has opened a gate onto that path of forbidden territory. Now the media would be remiss not to investigate the defense's charges, many will argue. It is simply where the story has gone. The multitudes of hungry press camped in Colorado are now in some respect working on behalf of the defense, since any negative information on the alleged victim can only help Bryant's case - especially if it doesn't originate from the defense team. Even those outlets whose coverage condemns the defense's tactics have the unfortunate reverse effect of helping to spread Pamela Mackey's provocative questions. That means that the defense has given Bryant's accuser an image problem. "The alleged victim has gone from being a young, upstanding beauty queen to someone who would appear to be having consensual sex with a fair amount of frequency, to a lot of frequency, if one believes Bryant's attorney," points out Levick. How that will play out in court remains to be seen, but it has purchased a bit of breathing room for Bryant's own image. The chance that he will be exonerated may leave sponsors, especially those with slightly edgier images like Nike, willing to wait it out. It gives teammates a few inches of solid ground on which to defend him, and it plants the seed of reasonable doubt. But along with a slight reprieve for Bryant and the "Kobe" brand, the defense's tactics have also given the story the spark it needs to reach OJ proportions. For many communications experts, that downside far outweighs any positives brought out in the preliminary hearing. "It was terrible," says Magnet Communications' Kate Casey Foley, who works with law firms. "Without a doubt, the information that was provided in court was disturbing." Forcing the story onto the alleged victim's past was like squirting lighter fluid on a lit barbeque. It spread the fire to new territory, but also has the potential to blow up. Perhaps that is inevitable - details had to come out at some point. There is no communications strategy cunning enough to control media, especially on a national story like this. However, the new information raised the stakes for Bryant. Mackey opened a Pandora's box whose contents will be microscopically analyzed by the entire country. Guilty or innocent, those explicit details can't be erased. Acquittal isn't enough "With Kobe Bryant, you're talking about somebody who is a marketing machine, and his defense lawyers were very cognizant of that," says Torossian. "To be the guy who was found innocent but everybody thinks is guilty is not good enough for him. If he's found innocent in the end and the public perception is that he was manipulated and the woman has slept around, it is very beneficial to him." Perhaps it would be beneficial, but it would not be honorable. Even if the evidence fails to support the rape charge, it points to a Bryant very different from the role he cultivated as basketball's good boy. Whatever picture of Bryant emerges in the future, that pretrial persona is probably gone. And there is no way the media is going to forgo watching that image burn. "As a reputation-management expert, it doesn't matter if Bryant is guilty. The trial hasn't even started yet, and huge decisions are being made that have nothing to do with a court of law," says reputation-management specialist Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR. "He has sponsors that are starting to drop him. He's had fans who are starting to drop him. There will be picketers, people who throw condoms on the court at games." The court of public opinion never adjourns, and will likely give dozens of verdicts before the legal system gives one. So the only thing that's certain is that there is a lot more to come.
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