Lessons from Mary-Kategate: Why Lawyers Should Not Engage in Media Relations

January 29, 2008

Earlier this month, I talked about the potential peril of looking to lobbyists for media relations counsel. Coverage this week in the New York Post reminds us to add attorneys to that list.

Throughout my career as both a journalist and PR guy, I’ve witnessed (and cringed) countless times as well-intentioned attorneys grabbed the reins in an eminent domain-like maneuver to “oversee” their client’s media relations strategies. Almost without exception, they ended up causing considerably more damage than they sought to avoid. Engaging the media, particularly in the midst of a scandal or high-profile litigation, is a highly specialized expertise that most attorneys don’t appreciate, let alone possess.

The past four issues of the New York Post provide a textbook example of what I’m talking about. On Saturday, the Murdoch-owned tabloid took the NYPD to task for its handling of Heath Ledger’s death. The paper demanded to know why the police had not yet questioned actress Mary-Kate Olsen, who various media reports have suggested was called numerous times by those in Mr. Ledger’s home before 911 was dialed. The gossip going around the grapevine is that Ms. Olsen had instructed the caller who found Mr. Ledger to immediately call private security guards rather than emergency services. According to the Post, “…questions loom over whether the Police Department came under pressure from Olsen’s considerable legal machine.”

And while the police may not have heard from Ms. Olsen, the Post reportedly heard from her legal team:

Olsen’s attorney, Michael Miller (law firm affiliation not identified), immediately responded that if a reporter were to write ‘anything that is false or defamatory about Mary-Kate Olsen, in connection with Heath Ledger’s death, you and the New York Post will be sued.’

My guess is that hardly a day goes by when Post editor Col Allan doesn’t receive at least one call or a letter from an attorney threatening to sue him and his paper for some story that’s been printed or is rumored to be in the works. Not only does he probably take those threats in stride, he probably quite enjoys receiving them as they serve as confirmation that he’s still got “it” – the ability to get under powerful people’s skin. If ever there was a talent valued among tabloid journalists, that’s got to be it.

Indeed, threatening the New York Post with a lawsuit, particularly on behalf of an entertainment client with a resplendent history as gossip column fodder, is tantamount to warning a schoolyard bully that you will “tell on him” if he keeps stealing your milk money. You’re practically begging him to call your bluff. Newspapers, particularly tabloids, are ever mindful of potential lawsuits. Rest assured, they have some pretty high-priced lawyers of their own to advise them when a story crosses the line and opens them up to litigation that would be tricky to defend against. While it is fair to say that an aggressive lawsuit threat could work to introduce a bit more care and fact-checking into the editorial process, it can really backfire when the media outlet’s lawyers determine that there’s no real exposure. Instead of just getting your milk money stolen, to keep with the earlier analogy, you’ll get a heck of a wedgie as well.

Don’t believe me? Well, first check out Saturday’s Post. Under a large red-and-white “Heath Ledger Mystery” banner, the cover screams:

The cops are afraid to ask Mary-Kate Olsen some simple questions.
1) DID you fail to call 911? 2) DID you send bodyguards?

In case Mr. Miller missed the Saturday edition, the newspaper raised the issue again in its Sunday edition, rerunning the Saturday cover as an accompanying photo. This time though, Mr. Miller is quoted as telling the Post that he’d call them back with the number of Ms. Olsen’s spokeswoman – ok, so he’s a quick study – but apparently never followed through. Being that Ms. Olsen has appeared more than a few times within Page Six, the Post unsurprisingly already had her number, not that it mattered. The spokeswoman apparently never called them back either.

The Post again raised the issue of Ms. Olsen not being interviewed in Monday’s edition and in today’s edition. Although rival publications have snickered that the Post‘s reporting has been wrong, the newspaper remained undaunted. Whether or not the Post has good cause to carry on with their self-styled crusade is immaterial to its readers. They’ll just assume that something is driving Mary-Kategate, such as a credible inside source who has been whispering in their ear, and assign it validity.

While it is saddening to see the death of a young person, famous or not, turned into such a media circus, I must admit that the PR guy in me is interested to see how the story ultimately plays out with Mr. Miller et al. Something tells me it won’t be the Post that blinks.