A guest post by Rick Kelly, Director of Crisis Communications at Triad Strategies
We who practice crisis communications for a living are intimately and sometimes painfully familiar with the tug and pull that occurs between communications counsel and legal counsel. In many crises, both disciplines play an essential role, but what prevails in the court of public opinion does not always work in a court of law, and vice versa.
Today, we again mine the case of baseball player Ryan Braun for another crisis comm. nugget. During a recent news conference following the successful appeal of his 50-game suspension for failing a drug test, Braun said:
“There were a lot of things that we learned about the collector, about the collection process, about the way the entire thing works, that made us very concerned and very suspicious about what could have actually happened.”
Braun pointed his finger at the as-yet-unidentified drug-test collector and what may have happened to the samples during the 44 hours they were in his care before he sent them to the testing lab. As a ploy to deflect attention from the fact that Braun had escaped punishment on a technicality, it might have worked – if only there were some truth to it.
But the identity and credentials of the sample collector, 52-year-old Dino Laurenzi Jr., quickly surfaced. Laurenzi has a bachelor’s degree in athletic training, a master’s in medicine/athletic training an MBA, all from highly respected institutions. He’s the director of rehabilitation services at a health care facility and has been a part-time sample collector since 2005, collecting more than 600 samples for Major League Baseball alone.
Multiple news organizations reported that Braun’s samples were secured under several layers of tamper-resistant seals. The testing lab said none of the layers had been breached. Drug-testing experts concluded that tampering did not occur.
Several medical experts said it would have been scientifically impossible for Braun’s samples to contain an illegal substance if they had not come out of his body that way, and that the 44-hour delay had absolutely no effect.
So, by going after the collector, had Braun opened himself up to a defamation lawsuit? If so, this was shaping up as a terrific case study of the consequences of letting PR strategists craft public statements without review by legal counsel.
Four days after Braun’s news event, and after his identity had become public, Laurenzi emailed a statement to ESPN and several other news organizations. He outlined his extensive experience and qualifications and detailed the circumstances surrounding the collection of Braun’s urine samples.
“At no point did I tamper in any way with the samples,” Laurenzi said. “It is my understanding that the samples were received at the laboratory with all tamper-resistant seals intact.
“This situation has caused great emotional distress for me and my family. I have worked hard my entire life, have performed my job duties with integrity and professionalism, and have done so with respect to this matter and all other collections in which I have participated.”
The next day, on ESPN’s “Mike & Mike” radio talk show, CBS legal analyst Jack Ford, a lawyer himself, was asked whether he thought a lawyer may have crafted Braun’s comment because it seemed vague enough to have stopped short of defamation.
“Clearly this was put together in a very careful and calculated fashion,” Ford said. “You can raise questions and issues as long as you’re not clearly couching an accusation in some very subtle form. …I think they’ve probably kept themselves carefully on the side of not exposing themselves to a clear liability.”
So perhaps rather than PR people crafting statements that cause problems in a court of law, we have the opposite. If so, to Braun’s lawyers, we say “nice job in the court of law; in the court of public opinion, not so much.”
We may never know whether legal counsel or communication strategists wrote what came out of Braun’s mouth, but those words ultimately may have significantly greater long-term impact on his reputation than whether he cheated and lied and escaped on a technicality.
Ironically, once he won his appeal, he didn’t need to say a word about the collector, especially if there wasn’t evidence to support the innuendo. It’s not the first time we’ve suggested that sometimes the best crisis comm. advice is to simply shut up.
By attacking the collector, Braun opened himself up to further scrutiny, reminding us that (wait for it) you cannot communicate your way out of something you behaved yourself into.
To paraphrase Braun himself, there are now a lot of things we have learned about him, about his thought process, about the way he approaches character issues, which have made us very concerned and very suspicious about the kind of person he actually is.
It will be a long road back from that.
Rick Kelly is Director of Crisis Communications at Triad Strategies, LLC.