A guest post by Rick Kelly, Director of Crisis Communications for Triad Strategies
A couple of weeks ago, following Jerry Sandusky’s a poorly executed NBC interview, I wrote that sometimes the best crisis communication advice is “shut the hell up,” even though most of us who provide crisis comm. counsel are predisposed to encourage clients to tell their side of the story.
Specifically, Sandusky committed the cardinal sin of failing to adequately prepare for his interview with Bob Costas, which should have consisted of anticipating the potential questions, identifying the appropriate responses, and practicing the delivery. Sandusky appeared to have done none of those things.
This week, his lawyer, Joe Amendola, provides another example of why sometimes it’s better to shut your pie-hole if you do not understand the news media and cannot muster enough “message discipline” to keep from exacerbating your client’s troubles.
Following is a verbatim transcript of a portion of Amendola’s videotaped interview with Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim, who asked Amendola whether there may be a point where he sits down with Sandusky “to talk about a different strategy.”
Amendola: “That could happen down the road, if more allegations come forth, and if Jerry gets the point where he realizes that fighting against more than the original eight allegations might be a real uphill battle. As I’ve said all along, we’re in a position where we’re climbing a mountain. It’s probably Mount Everest, just because the way the media coverage has progressed, and now we're starting from the bottom, fighting our way up. But the bottom line remains that Jerry has always maintained his innocence, from the outset of the first allegations, and he continues to maintain his innocence. Now again, what happens with any additional charges which may be filed, but as of yet haven’t, remains to be seen.”
Ganim: “But you’re looking at maybe a dozen, maybe more. What is the point where you say, ‘maybe we should talk about a plea deal?’ And are you already having those conversations with the AG’s office?”
Amendola: “No we haven’t. And as a matter of fact, you know from your experience, Sara, that people who maintain their innocence sometimes plead guilty just because of the overwhelming evidence against them. And there have been many people who have gone to trial who were convicted of very serious crimes, including homicides, and executed, and it later turned out they were innocent. So, there’s a lot of reasons why people decide to do certain things. But at this point Jerry has maintained his innocence in regard to the allegations he knows about, and he wants to defend, and I'm trying to give him that opportunity.”
Reporters are driven by an insatiable desire to be the first to predict an outcome. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just the nature of the job. Inevitably, it can lead to an endless barrage of “what-if” questions, which on their face may sound harmless, but which often are far from it. I liken it to a dangerous part of town called “Speculation Avenue,” populated not by hookers or hustlers, but reporters. They can’t write a story about what could happen unless you help them by loaning them your name and credibility. And once you do, you may have trouble getting it back.
Perhaps without knowing it, Amendola was invited to cross Speculation Avenue. And cross he did – in the middle of the block, at rush hour, against the light, without looking. The news coverage the following day flattened him like Wyle E. Coyote. Nearly 4,000 news outlets and blogs picked the story up.
“Sandusky lawyer may eventually urge plea deal,” the Patriot-News front-page headline read. When Fox News called, Amendola said it “is not accurate” to say that his client would consider a plea deal if more allegations arose. Predictably, Fox News parlayed it into a pissing contest between Amendola and the Patriot-News.
Later, Amendola issued a media statement that said, in part:
“I was asked ‘would your strategy change if the AG filed new charges involving 15 or 20 new alleged victims?’ I responded, IF that happened, in addition to the planned course of defending against all the charges, I would have to discuss other possible alternatives with Jerry. I wouldn’t be fulfilling my legal obligation to him if I didn’t discuss those other alternatives with him, including the possibility of a plea.”
Amendola went on to “explain” that his response “was analogous to saying, if weather forecasters were predicting a blizzard next week, which they are not, I would have to at least consider the possibility of postponing my scheduled trip to Philadelphia.”
OK, let’s review: he allows himself to be drawn into speculation over what his legal strategy might be (including the specific context of a plea agreement), later disassociates himself from it, then concedes that he would be obligated to discuss a plea with his client even if that’s not what he had said in the interview, and finally, likens his response to a theoretical trip to Philly in a blizzard that is not in the forecast. Are you with me so far?
There’s a better way – avoid Speculation Avenue altogether. Here’s how the interview could have gone:
Reporter: Is there a point when you sit down with your client and talk about a different strategy?
Lawyer: My client is innocent. My strategy is to prove it.
Reporter: But isn’t it possible that you would seek a plea agreement?
Lawyer: That’s not my plan. My client is innocent. I intend to prove it.
Reporter: But if there are additional allegations, and the evidence is overwhelming, wouldn’t you owe it to your client to at least discuss a plea, even if he’s innocent? Because, in my experience, innocent people often have their own reasons for accepting a plea agreement.
Lawyer: I’m talking about what my strategy is, not about what it could be. My client is innocent, and I intend to prove it. Excuse me, but if you don’t have any other questions, I’m late for my squash match.
Two disclaimers: First, none of this speaks to Amendola’s strategy for a court of law. Clearly, however, he did not help his client in the Court of Public Opinion.
Finally, this clinical dissection of communication issues does not equate to a lack of caring about the alleged victims. Having worked with numerous organizations and individuals who have been hurt, sometimes very deeply, by various acts of sexual misconduct and assault, I understand that the victims are always the last to heal, and sometimes never do.
Rick Kelly serves as Triad's Director of Crisis Communications, and does not suffer bad p.r. strategies easily.