Trying a high-profile case under the media spotlight is rare for most lawyers, but it is becoming more and more common
given the number of new media outlets and the growing public appetite for legal news and information.
The delicate balancing act of effectively handling a client’s case while also protecting their public reputation is far from easy, but it can be done if you recognize the potential pitfalls and what to expect from reporters.
Is Media Interested?
The first step is to determine whether media truly are interested in your case since there is no need to waste valuable time preparing for a media onslaught that will never emerge. If “yes” is the answer to any of the following questions, then you may need a media plan for trial:
- Is the case high-profile already? Media that have reported on a case before trial are likely to “close the circle” by covering the trial itself.
- Is my client high-profile? The higher the public profile, the more likely media will be interested.
- Will the case outcome be high-profile? News editors are always looking for trials that could result in a change to the law or will have a wide-ranging impact.
- Is the case so unique or unusual that it could become high-profile? Media love to report on the first time a new law is being tested in court or the outcomes in so-called man-bites-dog cases. Remember, too, that trials do not happen in a vacuum. A recent trial involving an alleged rape in Rockville, Maryland, became the subject of intense coverage on a cable news channel because the alleged perpetrator is an undocumented immigrant. The incident, therefore, became a flashpoint in the national debate over illegal immigration.
These are just a few ways that your case may fall into the high-profile category, but common sense is perhaps the best indicator. The key is establishing a media plan if you know reporters are interested, and to be prepared for any unexpected press inquiries. Failing to do so will only make your job more difficult once jury selection begins.
Once you’ve established that you have a high-profile case, it’s time to decide exactly how you want to interact with reporters. If you and your client don’t want to talk to media, then expect the coverage to be dominated by whatever transpires in the courtroom and whatever the other side is saying.
If you decide to interact with media, consult any professional rules regarding media communications, such as those included in the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct.
Here are a few additional issues that need to be resolved on the front end:
- The Judge – How will the judge who is hearing your case react when he or she sees you quoted about the trial before it starts or while it’s in progress? The answer to this question will determine whether you should talk with reporters at all. Determining your judge’s stance toward media can be done in a variety of ways, from researching prior coverage of high-profile cases in the judge’s court to personally asking the judge how they would prefer you respond to media inquiries.
- The Message – What do you want the public to know about your case? Identifying the important issues and establishing a concise set of points that can be communicated to the media quickly and effectively is key.
- The Spokesperson – Choosing who will communicate with reporters is one of the most important tasks in getting ready for a high-profile trial. Some clients and lawyers are perfectly capable of handling media interviews, while others may be so passionate that their comments could unintentionally hurt their case or their public perception. In those instances, it may be best to rely on a communications professional for media training or to serve as the spokesperson for you/your client during trial. It is similarly important to limit the number of people who talk with reporters; this can help ensure that your message is consistent and in line with your litigation objectives.
- The Media – Knowing which media outlets and which individual reporters have covered your client’s case is just as crucial as recognizing the breadth and tone of the coverage itself. Knowing who is interested and what they already have said about your case individually will allow you to anticipate their next questions and provide your best responses.
Once the trial begins, reporters will want to talk with you about what happens in court and what may be coming up next. This can create a conflicting dynamic where you want to help reporters but you also want to quickly get back to work on the next day of trial.
If it is obvious that you will not have enough time to talk with reporters based on your trial obligations, then you may want to consider working with someone in your office or a communications professional who can serve as a conduit to the media. Doing so will help protect your time and it will also give reporters confidence that you’ll help them complete their stories.
In some instances, your media contact may deliver a written statement on your/your client’s behalf if you don’t have time for a full-blown interview. Your media contact also can provide reporters with key documents that support whatever you’re saying in the courtroom, which reporters typically appreciate since they don’t have much time to locate those documents on their own while trying to meet story deadlines.
Even if you have an unpopular client and the past coverage has not been in their favor, establishing yourself as a go-to media source before, during and after the trial can go a long way toward creating a favorable public opinion about you and your client.
Bruce Vincent is a legal marketing and communications specialist who has been assisting lawyers and law firms in high-profile trials for more than 20 years. When he isn’t preparing for the next big case, you can find him writing informative blogs and website text, building compelling advertising messages, handling crisis situations, or sneaking out early to play a round of golf. Bruce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.