Jay Milano, criminal defense, malpractice, and personal injury lawyer and law professor in Cleveland, Ohio teaches how to win cases.
“There are no rules in a knife fight.” — Butch Cassidy
Many lawyers, good ones, view dealing with the media as a knife fight. They don’t trust reporters or their editors and feel that even if they win, they will come out bloody. As a result, they take the gentlemanly way out and utter “no comment” at every opportunity. They may be right.
But then again, a competent lawyer should at least think through the options before deciding on a course of action. In fact, there are some rules in the “battle” between lawyers and reporters:
Rule 1: As in all situations, your ethical duty comes first.
Read the disciplinary rules (DR7-107). Given the amount of pretrial comment that goes on, and assuming that you are on solid ground with your statements, you should be able to comply quite easily. Remember, however, that the world tends to dump on the less powerful.
Rule 2: Determine what you want to say before you get near the interview.
The camera (even a reporter’s notebook) acts as an aphrodisiac. Once you get a whiff, you might not be able to stop. You will end up talking until drool runs down the corner of your mouth. Nothing you cared about will get in the story. As a result, it is imperative that you plan in advance exactly what points you want to make. First decide if there are any broad issues of interest to the public, outside of, but related to, your case. There may be a pattern of abuse or a law that needs to be changed. Next, determine the single case-related fact most important to your reason for giving the interview. Move down through your points in descending order of importance. The longer the interview, the more points you can make. If you are trying to get a message out over time, repeat it word for word each chance you get. It will take time to register with the public, but it will.
Rule 3: Consider your media and then fashion your quotes to fit.
For TV you get 10 seconds, maybe 20, to get your point across. In print count on 2 sentences. Before the interview think of how you can fit your thoughts into that framework. Speak English. Sound intelligent. Sound profound. Sound uplifting. Sound plain-spoken. Just don’t sound like a lawyer.
Rule 4: No matter what they ask – follow Rules 2 and 3.
TV has to fill the box everyday. They need words and pictures. A newspaper story needs words. If they are there talking to you, they want you. Say what you need to say, regardless of the questions that are asked. The reporter will then fashion their story around you. You can control what is printed or televised by what you are willing to say. You can devise and string quotes to write their whole story. If you are doing a print press release, consider including only the quotes that you want printed.
Rule 5: Everything is on the record.
You cannot take anything back. Set the ground rules first. Here is a loose interpretation of reporters’ rules:
On the Record: Everything you say is fair game until you say otherwise.
Off the Record: You will not be quoted by name, but you may be quoted in such a way that you should not be able to be identified.
Background: The item cannot be used without separate confirmation. You will not be quoted.
Rule 6: Establish a relationship with the reporter based on credibility and trust.
This is not about reporters using you or you using them. Your ability to function effectively in this arena will come only by being credible over time.
Rule 7: Think simply. Speak plainly. Act decisively.
Law and Fact
The Journal of the Cuyahoga County Bar Association