“Navigating the Press in the Age of Spin”
The media plays a significant role in shaping the public’s opinion of defendants, which poses a challenge to lawyers who must work to navigate the looming press influence in order to help guide a jury. As Miami-based attorney and author Kendall Coffey points out in his book Spinning The Law: Trying Cases in the Court of Public Opinion, “Studies conducted of mock jurors – simulated jurors in simulated trials – suggest that negative news contributes to negative verdicts,” of the ways in which jurors are influenced by press coverage of trials in what Coffey refers to as the “Age of Spin.”
“Once selected, jurors are instructed repeatedly to avoid media coverage of the case they are deciding,” explains Coffey. “The law assumes that they honor their oath,” he continues, “but common sense says some may not.” Because high profile cases are covered by the press in print, online, and on televised news, it is practically impossible for jurors to avoid the media’s portrayal of a defendant. With this additional outside influence, it is in an attorney’s best interest to use the press to help win their case, when applicable.
Here are some of Kendall Coffey’s press strategies in the “Age of Spin”:
Highlight Your Adversary’s Inconsistencies
In the “Age of Spin” it is vital to show the deficiencies and inconsistencies of one’s adversary in the courtroom. “High-profile cases attack an accuser’s credibility by putting the alleged victim on trial before the court of public opinion as well as before the jurors,” explains Coffey. Detecting inconsistencies in an accuser’s statements and using those to discredit them is a venerable strategy that cannot be stressed enough. As Coffey points out, “Even when the public may have empathy for an alleged double-talker, the fact of the inconsistency is almost always more powerful than the excuses.”
Use Simple Hooks to Formulate Your Message
“Many experts believe that that the most effective litigation messages should take ten seconds or less to deliver,” explains Coffey, of how presenting a simple “hook” will help to solidify one’s strategy in the courtroom. Coffey also suggests appealing to the emotional side of juries, citing the Elian Gonzalez case as an example in which “no amount of information about legal issues could overcome the lifetime of feelings people have about age-old issues such as parental rights.” In this case, the emotional element, presented in a simple way by Coffey, became something that the media picked up and spun advantageously.
Pitch to the Press
One of the more obvious ways to capitalize on the strong influence of the press is to reach out directly to journalists with a pitch for your client. Coffey explains that “calls to reporters, the seemingly friendly as well as the patently hostile, are critical,” except in the case of the “Invisible Client” who desires no press affiliation. Of course, this particular press strategy is risky in that after the press has been pitched to, it is up to a reporter to present the information how they see fit. “Before making calls that could wind up on the front page, careful planning is needed to craft the public message points as well as to ascertain the private lobbying tactics that rely on ‘background’ comments, which remain off the record,” Coffey cautions.
For more effective press strategies for lawyers, consult “Chapter 11: A Media Primer for Spinners” in Spinning The Law: Trying Cases in the Court of Public Opinion by Kendall Coffey.