While being a criminal lawyer is unlikely to make you the most affluent guest at a dinner party, it does often mean that you’ll have the most interesting work stories to tell. However, those very same fascinating tales that so enrapture your listening audience often make you the target of the unflinching gaze of the news media. Being able to competently respond to media attention on your cases is an essential skill for lawyers in any field where the bright light of journalism might shine.
Traditionally, there have been two schools of thought on lawyer/media relations.
The strong silent type
This lawyer responds to every media request with a stern but polished “no comment”. As a criminal lawyer, exercising my right to media silence comes naturally and exerts a certain simplistic appeal. If I don’t say anything, I can’t say anything wrong, right? Not necessarily.
While strictly speaking, saying nothing can do no harm to your client’s case, it also does nothing to advance his cause. If we define our role as lawyers as strictly to provide a solution to a legal problem – winning a trial for example – then clamming up will always be the appropriate response to a media inquiry. There’s almost nothing you can say in the public sphere which would not be better said directly to your trier-of-fact at the trial.
However, such a narrow definition of “legal services” is often overly restrictive and contrary to your client’s interests. Yes, the client has come to you to solve a problem but, “success” is not defined in entirely the same manner by the client and her counsel. Your client may have commenced litigation primarily to gain media attention for their cause and your refusal to comment is stifling that goal. A client charged with a criminal offence that has caught the public eye might desperately want his lawyer to comment publically in some fashion on his defence simply to make it clear that he intends to contest the charges and proclaim his innocence. Winning a trial years down the line is oftentimes a pyrrhic victory as, by the term the verdict is read, your client’s reputation has been publically shattered beyond repair.
These realities give rise to the second school of media relations.
The talk-show whore
This lawyer has never met a microphone, notepad or camera he didn’t love. Asked for comment, he will happily drop details of the case in interviews often carelessly crossing the line and revealing tidbits of confidential disclosure or privileged solicitor-client communications. The talk-show whore is a liability insurer’s worst nightmare. For clients seeking discretion in the hopes of having their case fly under the radar, the talk-show whore, even when successful in generating positive media attention, has failed to adhere to the will of his client.
For these reasons I propose a third school for the media-conscious lawyer.
The cautious communicator
The cautious communicator is a lawyer willing to entertain media inquiries but she chooses to whom and how she responds with great care following a set of well-considered guidelines.
- Know your client and their goals.
The first step in determining an appropriate media strategy in a given case is to clearly understand the goals of your client. Is your client looking to retain discretion and anonymity or is he actively seeking to project a public message? Is the client herself media savvy and capable of responding intelligently to an interview or does she expect her counsel to act as her media shield?
- Know the source of the media inquiry.
As you become more experienced with your local media population, this becomes an easier task but if you don’t have personal knowledge of the source, spend some time asking colleagues for their input and invest some time investigating previous examples of the journalist’s work. An inquiry from the Jerry Springer show needs to be assessed in a very different light from an invitation to comment by Anderson Cooper.
- Know your case before providing an interview.
Often, media attention is at its highest at the earliest stages of a court proceeding. Inevitably in a high-profile case, it is at the first court appearance that a crush of reporters are hungrily tossing questions at you and your client as you try to navigate an exit from the courthouse. Resist the overwhelming temptation to go into detail before you have had ample opportunity to review disclosure and understand your case. There is great danger in broadly proclaiming “my client was never there!” or “Mr. X doesn’t even know the victim!” before you’ve had an opportunity to know what your opponent knows. A simple short comment about reviewing materials and having faith in the judicial process should be the only things that escape the cautious communicator’s lips at such an early juncture.
- Define the boundaries of an interview, at least in your own mind, before commencing the interview.
Even though you may receive no such guarantees from your interviewer, it is vital that you yourself set internal boundaries for any interview you agree to participate in. Decide before sitting down for an interview which aspects of the case are off limits. By setting these invisible boundaries in your own mind, you protect against inadvertently slipping into commentary you had always intended to keep confidential. There is nothing wrong with cutting off a question with a polite “…we’re not prepared to discuss that at this time.”
- The medium really is the message.
An effective response necessitates an understanding of the particular strengths and weaknesses of different forms of media. While a newspaper article lacks the punch of an on-air clip, crafting a short print comment doesn’t require you to consider the tone and body language of your presentation the way that a television or radio comment might. As lawyers, we are most comfortable when we are given weeks or months to prepare submissions that are often presented over the course of hours or even days. Media outlets, no matter what their format, will never provide you with that kind of patience and will inevitably strip context by editing lengthy quotes. You must be constantly aware that your window for commentary is usually only a few seconds. Pick a single critical point you want to get across and present it in a simple, brief, and straightforward quote. The ten second sound bite is much more difficult to master than the in-depth interview or call-in show.
These bullet-points are by no means a comprehensive media strategy, but they are intended to get lawyers thinking about how they can transition from one of the two traditional media archetypes into a more successful media communicator. A lawyer who has mastered the art of cautious communication brings a major talent to the table for her client while simultaneously creating an excellent platform for generating a positive media profile that benefits her and her firm for many years in the future.