When Sean Bell was shot dead by police outside of a strip club in Queens, NY, just hours before his wedding, there was immediate outrage from the community.
Both advocates for the police and the victims battled for how the media framed the tragedy during the trial. Now that a single judge acquitted the three New York detectives responsible for the shooting of all criminal charges 17 months later, the work on both sides continues.
The PR team representing the New York City Detectives Endowment Association - Source Communications - says it executed extensive media outreach, recognizing the importance of the court of public opinion, as well as the court of law.
"You can't script it, so you act and react according to the news of the day [to] ensure a fair trial and level the playing field in the court of public and legal opinion," says Ken Frydman, managing partner at Source.
Thus the work took on the feel of a political campaign, where each new element required adapted outreach.
The firm's strategy included providing the media with a daily message based on trial testimonies, identifying the media outlets that were "open-minded," and basing coverage on evidence and testimony, he says. This involved working with influential columnists to get them to present both sides of the story.
"The challenge is to ensure that the media understands that the case should be determined on evidence and testimony, not hearsay and rumor," says Frydman, whose firm has worked with the association for three years.
Ultimately, Frydman believes the case was won both in the courtroom and out. He says media coverage overall was fair, and the case's most important audience - the deciding judge - also got the message.
"In this case, it was a bench trial, [so] we had an audience of one," he says. "The verdict reflects the job everyone did."
Advocates for the victims likewise made their case through earned media, via Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, and unearned media, when Nicole Paultre-Bell and her daughters appeared in an ad for Rocawear. The ad had a tagline "We are going to be here to the end, till justice is served" that stirred public sympathies and drew criticism from the police.
Those representing the victims contend the verdict - and media coverage - was unfair.
Sharpton tells PRWeek that media coverage has focused on the wrong issues, like the victims' criminal backgrounds and race, despite two of the three detectives being black.
"The message from day one is that there must be equal protection under the law," Rev. Sharpton says. "The emphasis is to keep equal justice out there." Moreover, he adds that the media has taken the improper angle by insinuating that because there was no violence, the public wasn't angry about the verdict.
"Rather than saying that there's never been violence, [the press is] talking about [how] there is going to be a riot," he says. "Then they [say] people aren't as angry as [they] thought because there's no violence."
Sharpton's best tactic, though, might have been to get Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to tour the site where Bell was shot, just days after the acquittal was handed down.
Conyers told The New York Times the US attorney general's office was opening an investigation.
"We want to make sure justice is served and that a message is sent out, not just to law enforcement, but to the young people of this country," Conyers said during his visit, echoing some of Sharpton's earlier comments.
Frydman says his firm has also asked to speak to Conyers in order to present its side of the story in what is now the beginning of the second phase of the case.
"Hopefully, [Conyers] will respond in a pragmatic way, rather than in an emotional one," he says.