I haven’t commented on the Trayvon Martin tragedy for a variety of reasons. It clearly is a sociopolitical mine field which means you can’t say much without enraging almost everyone. But when George Zimmerman, the defendant in this court of public opinion and now law, launched his website recently, it is a sign of how things have changed in our world related to events of major public interest. His site, the realgeorgezimmerman.com, promises to enable him to respond to all his supporters personally. But it seems quite obvious that the primary intention is to raise funds for his defense and his family. Here’s what he says:
It has come to my attention that some persons and/or entities have been collecting funds, thinly veiled as my “Defense Fund” or “Legal Fund”. I cannot attest to the validity of these other websites as I have not received any funds collected, intended to support my family and I through this trying, tragic time.
What a sign of the times in many respects:
– disgusting people would try and take advantage of a situation like this to bilk people out of money by launching phony defense fund website
– I’ve long advised that clients in a crisis use a website for various reasons–direct engagement with those interested, circumvent malicious media coverage, provide trustworthy information, and so on. Clearly Mr. Zimmerman is in a crisis of the highest magnitude for him and his family. So it is reasonable to respond with a website, but does this mean that every accused murderer, rapist, arsonist or child molester will take to a personal website to try and defend themselves? What a strange thought, but not unreasonable given the highly selective media coverage of crimes.
– The highly selective media coverage of crimes. Ever since (at least in my memory) the dramatic helicopter chase of OJ Simpson’s white Blazer, the media seems to select certain crime cases for unending exposure. It’s infotainment in one of its most disgusting forms to me, but I’m also certain it is because this is what at least some in the public want. There are lots and lots of murders and horrible crimes every day. You never know which are going to be “graced” with the likes of Nancy or other cable channels that decide they are going to ride this one to the bitter end. When they do land on a particular one, the legal situation changes completely as now the focus shifts to the court of public opinion–hence defendant websites.
– the coverage of this crime event in particular shows the deep divide in our nation, but also shows the inclination of media outlets. The reaction to the shooting is quite sharply divided along both racial and political lines, but the amount of time spent on covering the story clearly demonstrates the political orientation of the channel’s producers. MSNBC for example has spent an inordinate amount of time on the shooting while FOX has largely ignored it.
The upshot: the court of public opinion has risen in prominence in this new era of instant and continuous information sharing. But, on this issue, like many others, the jury is split. The media, far from being the cool, uninvolved “judges” in this court, there to observe and report, have become active participants serving as prosecutor or defense attorney. And that may be the real lesson for those in crisis communication. If you find yourself in this court and expect the media to serve as a just judge, but instead find them an aggressive prosecutor with you as the defendant, how does this change things for you?