By Carl Carter, APR
Forget the headlines about meetings with Russians for a moment. Let’s set aside the question of whether any of the stuff about conflicts of interest have any merit. Instead, I’m going to argue that in terms of its danger to a politician, a corporation or any other institution, looking guilty is a bigger problem than actually being guilty of a crime. In other words, the court of public opinion is more harsh and more unrelenting than a civil or criminal court.
For starters, you don’t get a fair trial. In a criminal courtroom, you may get a great lawyer and get off. If the prosecutors don’t get you, they can’t appeal. You’re free.
In the court of public opinion, the prosecution never runs out of appeals. You may win a round, but tomorrow is a new day. That’s why people are still talking about Benghazi and Vincent Foster’s suicide. And it’s why even the winners in a legal court can still wind up in jail. You’ll recall that Richard Scrushy, founder of HealthSouth, got off on fraud charges, but he lost the PR battle. So there was little sympathy when prosecutors nailed him on a bribery charge that many felt would have passed as “business as usual” in Alabama but for the fact that Scrushy was widely regarded as corrupt.
It doesn’t matter if there’s no fingerprint or DNA evidence. You don’t get to impeach witnesses or exclude circumstantial evidence. Hearsay, rumors, speculation and whispered lies are all allowed. If somebody makes a fictionalized movie about it, that’s ok too. It stands equal to eyewitness testimony in the case against you. Once the media feeding frenzy starts, there’s no judge to call foul. No hands are on Bibles, and nobody has to worry about perjury charges.
This is why I spend so much time telling clients that it’s not enough to follow the law. They also have to avoid practices that, though legal, strike folks as fishy.
It’s also why I work so hard to maintain good, trusting relationships with the media. When there’s an error in a story, I won’t even mention it unless it’s a matter of a wrong time or place. I never complain about the tone of a story, or how we get treated. Fortunately, there’s rarely a need to. The current administration declared war on the media, and the public trial commenced immediately. Right now, a real courtroom is the least of the president’s worries.
I’ve learned a lot of these lessons the hard way. The hardest thing to teach clients is that everything about media relations — and even more so about crisis management — is counter-intuitive. Your first instinct is almost always the worst thing you can do. It’s my job to coach folks past that stage. They buck and scream, and they always thank me for it.
Just a few thoughts for anybody who might occasionally want to survive a bump or win a public battle.