As developments continue in the Duke lacrosse scandal and the media maintains its probing gaze, parties on all sides are flacking up in efforts to put their best faces forward for the cameras, reporters and photographers who have parachuted into Durham over the last six weeks. Media spin is the name of the game.
One of the strippers at the infamous party, Kim Roberts, who says she was not assaulted, sought the advice of a New York public relations firm on “how to spin this to my advantage,” according to reports.
A group of relatives and supporters of lacrosse players calling themselves the Committee for Fairness to Duke Families hired Bob Bennett, President Clinton’s former lawyer, because “they felt their positions were not getting out there,” Bennett told The News & Observer.
And Duke stepped up its game, retaining Burson-Marsteller, a global public relations firm that has helped polish the reputations of some of America’s largest corporations.
“They brought in a bunch of people who have been essentially training groups of 10 to 12 administrators, faculty and students to talk to the media. They’ve been pre-positioning these people to latch on to the TV crews coming through,” one source says.
Last week, Burson-Marsteller session participants learned the basics of public relations, according to the source: Stress the positive. Never repeat a negative assertion. Use transition comments to shift the direction of the conversation. Stick to the talking points, like how some Duke students have used their spring break to travel to New Orleans to help Katrina victims. This was all part of an effort to present the best image during alumni reunion activities, which took place last weekend, the source says.
“That’s not true,” says John Burness, senior vice president of public affairs and spokesperson of the university, when told of a description of the training. “President Brodhead and I have largely been the public spokespeople for Duke on these issues. And the press is very hungry to have people from the faculty and student body to talk about Duke University as they know it. So we contacted a bunch of students and faculty members who have indicated interest in this. Burson-Marsteller sat down with them and didn’t tell them what they should say but said, ‘These are the kinds of questions you might get asked and these are the ways you handle them.’” He estimates that less than 20 faculty and students participated in the sessions.
“The strategies we are using are most effective given the media frenzy in which we’ve been a part,” Burness says. “We are not used to having satellite trucks 24-7.”
The university’s public relations efforts differ from those of the defense attorneys and lacrosse families since its efforts are not focused on the facts of the alleged rape.
Ever since Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong expressed his certainty that a sexual assault occurred, defense attorneys have pushed their versions of events into the press. In their damage control efforts, some have accused Nifong of ethical impropriety and tainting the jury pool.
“Everyone’s reputation has been damaged,” says Larry Lamb, a University of North Carolina public relations professor and former PR professional. “And there are so many salacious elements to this story that have gotten a lot of media attention that the individuals feel compelled to speak up.”
What Lamb calls “litigation public relations” has seen a sharp increase over the last five years with the domination of 24-hour cable news.
“There is a lot of controversy,” Lamb says. “Some professionals and some academics think that these comments and explanations belong only in a courtroom where there are rules of evidence. And others say since people’s reputations are at stake, they have to speak up to protect their reputations. People are more conscious now of the fact that what happens in a courtroom once trial starts is dependent on the atmosphere that exists before the trial.”