Saturday, June 7, 2008

Scandalous Clients: Communication Lessons for Attorneys Expected to Accomplish the Impossible

Lately it seems there has been no escape from the media’s obsession on the most salacious and cringe-worthy intimate details of the private lives of very public people. Granted, folks like former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey and Iowa Senator Larry Craig have not done themselves any favors in the professional respect department.

The fallout of self-induced reputation execution often lands squarely on the shoulders of counsel. So what is the best course of action for an attorney expected to do the impossible and salvage a client’s professional futures? Let’s use the sad, strange case of once-crime crusader, now famous ”John” former Governor Eliot Spitzer. From the moment the New York Times’ story broke, few could see or suggest any alternative to the resignation that occurred a mere few days after the scandal began. This sort of unanimous agreement is incredibly unusual as well as the speed with which the story developed.

You cannot talk your way out of what you have acted your way into. There was no ‘spin strategy’ that could have been implemented on Spitzer’s behalf. We do a disservice to our clients by holding out hope when there isn’t any. The
“silver bullet” t mitigate the disaster often doesn’t exist. Clients need to understand that sometimes the best spin is no spin.

When it is clear a situation will not end happily, end it quickly. Without the “clean cut” of a quick Spitzer resignation, the media smell blood and consequently ready themselves for a good, long feeding frenzy. Sure, all the ingredients were there for a red-hot story; prostitutes, money, political hypocrisy- but had Spitzer lingered in Albany, the volume of sordid details would have multiplied tenfold.

Always be mindful of the necessity for teamwork. Some commentators actually criticized Spitzer for taking as long as he did to resign- forgetting, of course, that he was required to negotiate with law enforcement officials and his job was the only bargaining tool he had to stay out of jail. The commentators misguided criticism is a reminder that clients always require the full range of professional counsel, with lawyers and crisis communications experts working as a multidisciplinary team. In this situation there was a key legal priority that had to take precedence over all other considerations.

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