December 24, 2009
Michael Jackson’s untimely death on June 25 in Los Angeles initiated a media frenzy as reporters from around the globe tried to cover the pop icon’s passing on the eve of his comeback tour.
Public mourning and shock quickly gave way to controversy and allegations — rumors circulated about Jackson’s alleged prescription drug addiction and the doctors and enablers who secured or administered drugs, including the powerful anesthetic propofol, which was eventually cited as a contributing cause of his death by the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office.
Dr. Conrad Murray, Jackson’s personal physician at the time of his death, received much of the attention. Murray, a cardiologist with medical practices in Houston and Las Vegas, had been hired by concert promoter AEG at the request of Jackson.
Because of intense media interest, the Houston-based law firm that Murray hired in the days following Jackson’s death turned to Miranda Sevcik, a litigation communications professional, for help. Sevcik spoke to Tactics Online about the challenges of being at the center of a modern media maelstrom and how it’s changed her approach to public relations.
For Sevcik, president of Media Masters, a litigation strategic communications firm in Houston, the three weeks following Jackson’s death were a “continuous panic attack.” Stradley, Chernoff & Alford, L.L.P, the law firm representing Murray, hired her to handle media relations two days after Jackson’s death.
“It was fun for the first few hours, but after that it was just horrifying because you know you could make a mistake at any time,” she says. “You could say something you’re not supposed to say, maybe in fatigue. When the world is watching, when you see yourself being quoted everywhere, it’s really intimidating.”
Then there was the paranoia — which was hardly unheralded because of the enormous demand for information and lack of details available to the public.
“I put firewalls on my computer. I was afraid someone was going to read my e-mails and if I went anywhere I would check in and make sure I wasn’t being followed. So you add the paranoia and the non-stop questions and the limitations on what you can say and the fear and you pretty much have a panic attack,” says Sevcik with a laugh.
Eventually, she says, she adjusted to the pressure and the challenges of handling a case that drew international media attention coupled with the severe restrictions about the information that could be released given the ongoing police investigation. (The Los Angeles County Coroner’s office officially declared Jackson’s death a homicide on August 24. The Associated Press reported on Sept. 21 that Murray is the target of what police term “a manslaughter investigation,” but the probe is far broader, encompassing a half-dozen doctors who treated Jackson over the years. Police have not filed charges against Murray or any other individuals as of press time.
“Every decision we made was predicated on the question: will this hurt or help him in the long run? Now, granted [that] an interview with Oprah would help him in the short run — certainly — but will it help him in the long term? In court, will it jeopardize his freedom if it comes to that?” says Sevcik.
To safeguard against the release of information that could jeopardize Murray’s case, Sevcik acted as sole spokesperson. Sevcik began handling all media calls on Sunday, June 28, a day after Murray voluntarily spoke to LAPD officials. She started to create a media database and arranged as many satellite interviews as possible with Murray’s lead attorney Ed Chernoff at a Houston studio on Monday.
By Tuesday, they had launched an online pressroom, complete with RSS feed for reporters seeking the newest statement from the firm. The site allowed them to centralize the limited information that they could convey and better manage the message.
“There was so much misinformation going out about [Murray] that what we could say, I wanted to come from us,” says Sevcik. “Whenever we had anything to announce, all we had to do was take two minutes and put it up on the RSS, post it to the home page and everyone got it at the same time and it was fair.”
In an effort to maintain strong media relations, she answered or returned every media call that she received.
“That was my main thing. There was so little we could say that I found one of the most effective tools was shooting down the stories I could,” says Sevcik.
“I always put a good faith effort to respect the deadlines. If I could answer a question I would. If I couldn’t, I would tell [reporters] I was above the boards honest with everybody, so they softened up to me a great deal because they saw that consistent effort on my behalf.”
With the enormous interest and competition among news outlets to cover the story, Sevcik had to navigate overly aggressive journalists. Hostile reporters would call her at the end of the day, hoping that in her fatigue she would slip up and say something she shouldn’t.
“Some reporters were very aggressive, very insulting [in order] to get a reaction, but I used to be a reporter — I know all the tricks,” says Sevcik. “You have to be strong and stand your ground because if they sense weakness, they’ll go right after you. I’m always pleasant, but you’ve got to be firm because they will push you.”
Copyright © 2009 PRSA. All rights reserved.