Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tu be or not Tu be

by Anne Bremner

In the ever-evolving investigation into the death of Michael Jackson, there has been yet another bizarre twist: Dr. Conrad Murray has lodged his defense as suicide by Jackson. But there was another bizarre twist before of great note; the one-minute YouTube video released by Dr. Murray in August 2009, a sort of infomercial for the old PR tactic of answering the question you wish was asked. In this instance, a PR ploy that may well have backfired.

While YouTube is unquestionably an effective vehicle for producing and disseminating an unassailable statement, the public is not that easily duped. Evading cameras, microphones and probing questions--understandable. When that silence is broken by an obviously orchestrated statement such as Murray's, however, it is redolent of propaganda. Truth isn't delicate, fragile or easily shrouded. It can withstand being scrutinized, poked at, and examined from every angle. We, the public, have a healthy skepticism towards anything too slickly packaged. This is déjà vu all over again.

YouTube allows us to create our own entertainment, create instant celebrities--the piano playing cat, skateboarding bulldog, Snowball the disco cockatiel. It is a forum for raw footage of everything from natural disasters and amazing accidents, to horrifying incidents--the honor killing of a young woman by her own family, protests that turn into riots, or the abuse of power. It is predictable that such a powerful medium would mutate into an easily accessible marketing tool. 

Murray's tape, however, is a prima facia case of exploiting the medium, some would say, not well. The slickly produced video is out of place among the delightfully homespun wobbly, grainy, videos we find so endearing. The obvious splice in Murray's short video brings to mind (for those of us old enough to remember) the Nixonian 18-minute gap in the Watergate tapes. It raises our curiosity, prompting us to ask, "What was left out?"

Couldn't this man make it through a 60-second statement without requiring editing?

Disseminating information on YouTube is the cyber equivalent of a driving a top-speed funny car dragster--a short burst of excitement that requires the ability to maneuver a vehicle at lightening speed, and more importantly, bring it to a stop. As any lawyer who has represented a high-profile client will tell you, we spend far more time and effort keeping clients out of the public eye, flying under the radar. High publicity, sensational cases require meticulous handling, from the basics of keeping a client safe and safeguarding their privacy, to preserving their legal rights, staunching the flow of misinformation, and conducting independent investigation while responding to media, law enforcement and government inquiries.

While many lawyers utilize the advice and services of public relations professionals, there is a danger in confusing clever PR for skilled lawyering. In many cases, the lawyers and PR agents involved in a case early on will be replaced or dismissed as a case gathers steam and proceeds through the judicial system. One of the difficulties of taking on a client in those circumstances is undoing the damage that well-intentioned but detrimental PR may have already done--clients who have said too much, said the wrong thing, given the wrong impression. PR professionals can often have divergent purposes from defense lawyers. PR may concentrate on salvaging a career, public image, and even arranging paid appearances or book deals without an eye to how that may play out to a jury later.

As we often say, silence requires no PR. In this case, it may turn out that the evidence will exonerate Dr. Murray if it proves impossible to isolate, from a medically convoluted sequence of events, a single act that irrefutably lead to Jackson's death. Witnesses can and do lie, but evidence never does. In the certainty that evidence will exonerate, no words are necessary. The problem with self-serving statements is that they are often made by individuals whose credibility is already in dispute. I laughed at my 20-something neighbor's reaction to Murray's video. "The dude has passed the point where we're just gonna take his word for it. Dur," my neighbor said.

As the medium evolves, so will its implementation. I love it as a forum for all sorts of wacky, fascinating, shocking, inspiring and entertaining moments. As a lawyer, I would approach its use with great caution. Tu-be? Dancing Cats, singing dogs, surfing squirrels. The rest, at least for now, is not tu-be.

Now, Dr. Murray is presenting his defense in person. From the sublime to the ridiculous, the resulting disbelief may remain the same.


DrGina said...

Well written post Anne. Good insight into the psychology of PR.

Anonymous said...

Thank you!