When a celebrity goes on trial, managing the inevitable media circus demands that both lawyer and PR executive act swiftly and accurately, says Anita Chabria.Even before actor Robert Blake was arrested for allegedly murdering his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley, the Baretta star's attorney was hard at work managing public perception of his client. Lawyer Harland Braun began talking to the media last May, just days after Bakley was shot to death in a car near the restaurant where she and Blake had just dined. By the time the actor was arrested last month, Braun's name had become synonymous with the case, as had his opinions on everything from how the LAPD conducted its investigation, to possibilities for others who may have wanted Bakley dead.
Braun released information about the victim's past - including scams she allegedly ran on the internet, alias names she used, and her penchant for conning money from men she met through newspaper and magazine advertisements.
He appeared on news broadcasts and talk shows, granting interviews and releasing statements at a furious pace.
The result of Braun's self-managed PR initiative, say legal experts, won't be known until the jury gives its verdict. But one fact is clear: Braun has done his best to reach and influence the possible jury pool - a savvy move that's becoming commonplace in high-profile celebrity trials.
"I agree with the argument that it shouldn't matter what the public thinks, but juries are made up of the public, so they can be influenced by the media,
says lawyer Barry Blandberg, who has handled cases for Carol Burnett, Aretha Franklin, and Valerie Harper.
Whether it's a civil suit or criminal charges, attorneys know that media interest will be high when it comes to star clients, and public opinion is quick to form and hard to change. While some litigators like Braun relish handling the press on their own, more and more are turning to PR professionals to make sure the right messages reach the right crowd. But balancing the media's ravenous interest and legal limitations is a tough maneuver, with stiff penalties for clients if mistakes are made.
"If you go out the first round with an inaccurate statement, you doom the client,
warns Howard Rubenstein, who has represented high-wattage celebs such as Michael Jackson and boxing promoter Don King. "Get your position out as quickly as possible, because the initial burst of publicity is what dominates the story."
Accuracy is the number-one rule for influencing opinion. And the best way to be sure your statement is correct is to keep it simple and to have it checked out by the legal experts. While the days of the "no comment
are long gone for celebrity trials, too much information can not only give the press unintentional firepower, but could have legal consequences as well.
"If someone is accused of a crime and it hits the newspapers, they usually say, 'I have to defend myself.' I say, 'You have to defend yourself before a jury.' Somewhere in between is usually the correct way,
For lawyers, the desire to give information often runs to the other extreme - trying to freeze out the press to avoid unpleasant questions.
"My personal opinion is that the facts of the case itself shouldn't be argued in the press,
says Blandberg. "There are things about specific witnesses or specific issues in the case that shouldn't be talked about - even things you are going to reveal in court. There can be all kinds of limitations on what you might want the press to know about. Every press release that I've ever been involved with that is written by a PR person, I've always gutted before it was put out there."
A good middle ground is a close examination of the public record. Any decent reporter is going to head to the courthouse to see what papers have been filed. Court records can include tremendous amounts of detail, from descriptions of the crime scene to what tattoos your recently arrested client had under wraps. Police logs can add where and when events transpired.
And since it's all fair game for reporters, being proactive can help shape the story.
"There's always going to be a level that you can't comment on,
concedes Scott Jones, a Texas-based PR pro with experience in high-profile litigation.
"But a lawyer should be comfortable and free to talk about issues that are on the record and in the public domain."
Getting the attorney to be the one to talk is another good idea. Acting as the spokesperson for legal matters takes expertise that a PR pro without a law degree is not prepared for. There are nuances of words and ideas that could cause trouble for the litigation - so leaving the phrasing to the lawyer is the safest move.
"It's always good for the people with the most knowledge to be the resource for the media,
says Jones. "You always want to put the attorney in touch with the media versus you being the mouthpiece for them."
But not all lawyers want to deal with the press - or even have time to.
Blandberg points out that during a tough trial, he's often too busy to hold press conferences, and doesn't feel it's his area of expertise anyway.
"I may be articulate and intelligent, and used to speaking in a courtroom,
he says, "but that's different from talking to the media. No one would hire a PR person to try a case, and a lawyer shouldn't deal with the media."
While the courtroom may be where attorneys feel most at home, it's still the responsibility of a good PR pro to point out that it's an open venue, often full of press. Sketch artists and reporters quickly pick up expressions and phrases, and cameras add a whole new dimension.
"When TV comes in the courtroom, you might find the celebrity lawyer putting on a bigger act, saying more than he possibly should,
points out Rubenstein. "And suddenly, that's all over the place. So if there's a camera in there, the lawyer and the client have to be cautious, so they don't cause prejudice against themselves."
See Media Roundup, p.12.
1 Do make sure your statements are accurate. The press will pick up on even innocent mistakes as potential lies
2 Do get written approval of all statements before releasing them
3 Do ask the attorney to speak directly to media. It ensures that statements are worded correctly
1 Don't keep quiet. Give an attorney respect, but don't fear giving an opinion if they're hamming it up too much in court or in front of the cameras
2 Don't avoid giving details. If it's in the public record, it's fair game
3 Don't talk too much. Keep it brief and to the point, without adding details of your own.