The Court Of Public Opinion




By Mark Fierro

So, you just signed your highest-profile case ever, and it comes with one of the biggest retainers you’ve ever hoped for. Unfortunately, it also comes with a big stack of messages—all from the media; all regarding the allegations made against your brand new client; and all are requesting a callback. Today.

These are the swift waters that you’ll find yourself in when dealing with the court of public opinion, where ignoring the call is an answer, “no comment” is one of the worst, and the wrong answer could color the way the community views your client in the coming months or years.

As a former television journalist who covered the courts for nearly a decade, I often wondered why incredibly bright attorneys stumbled so badly when defending their clients in the court of public opinion. Recently, my firm spoke with two of Southern Nevada’s standout litigators who know the rules inside and outside the courtroom—who have “fought the good fight”—Dominic Gentile and Tom Pitaro. We asked them about making what can be the very difficult decision to engage or not engage with the media in a high-profile case.

According to Pitaro, while it can be a delicate decision, it’s important to remember that the other side has a machine that’s already working against you.

“The U.S. Attorney has a press office, and many times you have to deal with that, because they get the first bite,” says Pitaro. “It’s a situation where you have to be reactive, and decide how you are going to react to what they’re saying through the media. You’re answering it without putting the client in jeopardy.”

Responding to the media may cause pain initially, but ignoring the media can put a reputation in jeopardy. As Gentile explains, in some cases it’s a matter of playing for the longer term.

“You do have to push back in order to minimize that kind of damage…not just to a person’s reputation, but to the moral capacity that the person is going to need in order to fight these allegations,” says Gentile.

“If the government, or the adversary, is able to diminish their will to fight, then they’ve already won the battle. In those instances, you absolutely have to do damage control and what we call crisis management.”

In those cases, the next critical decision is whether to engage the services of a PR professional. Fierro Communications has provided litigation support in some of the highest profile criminal and civil cases in the past two decades, such as the Michael Jackson death case, in Nevada’s only modern-day impeachment.

“Sometimes you have to engage a professional to help you do that,” Pitaro says. “Lawyers are great in the courtroom but they’re not necessarily media-savvy. Sometimes it’s the expert outside the courtroom that you need to advise you on the best way to go for your client.”

While the rules of the court are fairly well defined, it can take years to master the rules of interacting with the media. Even when you have a thorough understanding of those rules, you have to ask yourself: Do I have the background and the reputation with reporters to get your story out in its clearest light?

“It’s important to be able to have access to media people and the media they are engaged in,” says Gentile. “But in order to have access, you have to have credibility with those people. That’s the key. That doesn’t happen overnight. You aren’t born with it. You have to earn it.”

In our own practice, our team comprises veteran journalists with backgrounds in both broadcast and print. We understand the nature of what the reporter needs while protecting the rights of the client.

In our agreements, which are always made directly with the law firm and typically guaranteed by their client, the attorney is both the quarterback and head coach: We suggest offensive and defensive plays to help the attorney/spokesperson deliver the best defense to members of the media.

It’s important to know that virtually every PR firm will claim to understand crisis management. When weeding out your options, the threshold questions should be: How much experience does their PR team have as working journalists? What are the most complex cases the firm has handled?

A good litigation support team can provide a broad array of services—everything from the initial statement to the media, to “Day in the Life” videos in civil cases, and in criminal cases where someone may soon be named as a defendant. And thinking long term, if a story has legs, you may consider a PR team that could help write compelling op-ed pieces or even a book or books to help support your position as their client.

Fierro Communications, Inc., is a full-service public relations and marketing firm with video production assets and a wealth of media contacts in Southern Nevada and throughout the United States. Mark Fierro is an author of two books and has appeared on national news broadcasts including CNN, Entertainment Tonight and ABC’s 20/20.

 Initial consultations for litigation support are always free of charge.