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Law and order: PR lessons from the Casey Anthony trial


September 30, 2011

Casey Anthony departs the Orange County jail with her attorney Jose Baez on July 17. [Getty Images]
Casey Anthony departs the Orange County jail with her attorney Jose Baez on July 17. [Getty Images]

The PR professionals who worked on the Casey Anthony trial say that managing requests from 700 reporters was only part of the story.  The 25-year-old mother’s case riveted the country this past summer for six weeks, challenging textbook PR strategies and tactics, and producing innovative ways of managing the media and public during a crisis.

Each public information officer (PIO) involved in the case had to manage nonstop calls and hundreds of emails daily. Karen Levey, the veteran Orange County court spokesperson, not only had to field hundreds of media requests for the judge’s rulings and the attorneys’ filings, but she also had to sort out the “Tell Judge Perry he rocks!” crowd from reporters on deadline.  Additionally, she had to issue trespass notices to rowdy people trying to get coveted seats in Courtroom 23 and explain why others couldn’t bring their misting fans or dogs into the courtroom.

One mother even wanted to have her son’s 14th birthday party in the courtroom during the trial.

“She said she would be happy to bring food for everyone, including the jury,” Levey said.  “She said she just couldn’t find a good birthday party venue.”

Allen Moore, APR, who handles media relations for the Orange County Jail, where Anthony was incarcerated for three years, said that it was challenging to field the high volume of requests that landed at his one-man office, which peaked when she was sentenced. Moore said he gave priority to public-record requests from traditional media, recognizing their deadline needs. The jail’s records custodian handled requests from the general public and what Moore deemed “tabloid journalists.” Moore said he gave “media status” to a few of the large blogs that served much like traditional media sites.

“Social media is what set this case apart from O.J.’s,” Moore said, referring to former football star O.J. Simpson’s sensational murder trial in 1995.

Amy Singer, a consultant who assisted Anthony’s attorney Jose Baez, called Anthony’s case the “social media trial of the century.”

Singer said that more than a million people were blogging about the trial and that she and her team monitored 40,000 blogs, chat rooms and Facebook pages to see what people were thinking as the trial progressed.

Handling an influx of media requests

Levey and Moore are accustomed to handling a large number of requests and high-profile cases.  The ninth circuit court, which includes Orange County, is the third largest in the state and one of the busiest in the United States. Levey serves 65 judges in a circuit that handles more than 590,000 new cases each year. In addition, Florida has the most open public records laws in the country — almost any paper or electronic record is available for people to view or to copy.

In 2007, these same PIOs got a taste of what a media frenzy looks like with the case of  former astronaut Lisa Nowak, who gained international attention when authorities arrested her on charges of attempted kidnapping. She ultimately pled guilty to charges of felony burglary of a car and misdemeanor battery.

Developing media guidelines

Nothing, however, rivaled the demands of the Anthony case.  The local media interest was immediate, and national interest followed close behind. Moore, a former reporter, said that he usually handles about 90 media contacts per month. Before authorities arrested Anthony on July 16, 2008, he already had about 40 media requests for July.  Two weeks later, the number shot up to 385 requests.

By September, there were 480 media requests — and the number continued to increase. Moore said that he had to develop new guidelines for how he handled media and public requests:

  • He changed his voicemail recording to one asking the media to send their requests by email.
  • He included a note in his email signature telling the media that email was the preferred way to request information or records.
  • He made sure that people, including most bloggers, sent all public requests to a records custodian at the jail.

By funneling the requests to his email, Moore said that he could respond to many more of them than he could by phone. He handled requests for arrest reports and inquiries about what Anthony had eaten for breakfast or bought at the commissary. Moore also received many requests for copies of the famous telephone video conversations between Anthony and her parents, George and Cindy, while she was in jail.

At first, Moore duplicated the 45-minute taped conversations from cassettes onto DVDs, but he later worked with the county to upload the videos onto an FTP site where the media could download them.

And Levey worked almost around the clock — for six or seven days per week — in the weeks leading up to the trial, during the trial and through Anthony’s release. Levey said the three years leading up to the trial gave her time to plan for the overwhelming task ahead of her. She studied other high-profile cases, such as the O.J. Simpson trial, and discovered that the media committees had handled a lot of the logistical decisions in partnership with the court.

Levey asked David Sirak, the news programmer at the local ABC affiliate, WFTV-Channel 9, to lead the committee. Sirak said that he and the other committee members, including people from local print and national television outlets, went to great lengths to ensure that the reporters would have fair, equal access to the trial.  Although courtroom seating was limited, the committee even included student journalists.

Levey met with the committee every week, and the members agreed on a priority list that gave the prime front-row seats in the courtroom to local reporters who had been working on the case since the beginning.  The seating preference brought complaints from some of the network TV shows, which boosted their ratings by offering gavel-to-gavel coverage.

The media committee also handled logistics that were out of the normal territory for a reporter or PR person. For instance, there was a “Caseytown,” which consisted of a number of media studios across from the courthouse in a vacant lot.  The committee’s role was to work with city officials to obtain the proper permits for the media vehicles.

The media committee also worked out a plan in which they picked three journalists — a print reporter, a print photographer and an NBC videographer — to be stationed inside the jail when authorities released Anthony.  The chosen journalists agreed to not shout out any questions and to leave their cell phones outside the jail.
Tony Zumbado, the freelance videographer who was working for NBC, praised Moore for coordinating with the media to allow access to Anthony’s release.

“Allen was just what the situation needed,” Zumbado said.  “He had a great understanding of what needed to get done for his department, the media and citizens.”

Zumbado said that having the embedded pool of journalists and tight security — which barricaded off other journalists and the public during  Anthony’s exit from jail — kept everyone safe and prevented a rush toward a moving vehicle.

Understanding privileged conversations

Marti Mackenzie, author of “Courting the Media: Public Relations for the Accused and the Accuser,” faced a different set of challenges. For 14 months, she served as the PR representative for Anthony’s attorney, Jose Baez.

“When you are working with lawyers, there are serious ethical considerations,” Mackenzie said. She pointed out that PR experts should ensure that there is a clear understanding of what constitutes a privileged conversation. She also added that attorneys will usually use PR professionals in high-profile cases so that they can focus on their clients while the PR representative handles media calls and press conferences. Savvy attorneys know that pretrial media can influence potential jurors. 

Mark NeJame, an Orlando criminal defense attorney who served as an on-air commentator during the Anthony trial, agreed with Levey and Moore that social media has changed the way everyone thinks about media relations.

“Journalism is on a slippery slope,” he said. Like several observers who commented for the story, he declared that the Casey Anthony case “was the first socially interactive trial.”

Building relationships

While all of the PR experts involved in the case said that a crisis communications plan is a must, they also emphasized that flexibility and communication were critical for success.

Janine Sikes, director of public affairs at the University of Florida, could empathize with her counterparts handling the Anthony case. She had only been working at the University of Florida for a few weeks in September 2007 when the infamous Taser incident occurred. During a speech by U.S. Senator John Kerry, police moved to remove an unruly student, who shouted during the struggle, “Don’t tase me, bro!”  The expression became one of the most repeated and Googled phrases of the year.

In the days that followed the event, Sikes had 10,000 emails in her inbox, and several network news programs were playing the video of the student saying this phrase every 30 minutes.

“Keep a level head,” she said. “It’s easy for the craziness to make you crazy.”

Tried and true PR-101 ethics, strategies and tactics do work. Rule No. 1 is to never lie. Mutual respect and relationship building go a long way, no matter what the circumstances are. For instance, the media learned where the Anthony jurors were staying early on, but they honored the judge’s request to keep the location from the public.

“The local, national and international media were gracious and willing to play by the rules,” Levey said. “Everyone wanted this to work.”

Doris Bloodsworth Doris Bloodsworth is an award-winning writer and former reporter for various publications, including The Wall Street Journal. She directs media relations and research for Thompson Wesley Wolfe in Orlando, Fla.
Email: doris at twsquared.com



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