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Media Minefield: What you can learn from John Edwards

John Edwards, a prominent attorney and former presidential candidate, is probably best known for his antics outside the courtroom.

It’s a hot story: former Senator and Presidential hopeful, John Edwards, indicted on six counts including conspiracy and making false statements.

Edwards, a prominent attorney, is probably best known for his antics outside the courtroom. Who can forget when he stood beside his cancer-stricken wife and denied fathering a child with filmmaker Rielle Hunter? Oh yeah, he later admitted to being her baby daddy. You can accuse Edwards of many things, but you can’t say he isn’t a master of the media. Full disclosure: I had a one-on-one interview with him during the 2004 election cycle and his charisma is as coiffed as his hair.

Back to his current troubles, he walked out of the courtroom following the indictment knowing the media would be circling, hungry for a sound bite. While this has zero affect on the outcome of the court case, it’s always wise to win the court of public opinion. So what’s a famous southern gentleman with a soiled reputation to do?

Option 1 | cold shoulder
If Edwards would’ve refused to talk to reporters, the video on all the news shows would be of him walking away from jostling reporters while they are screaming questions. Video or still pictures of him avoiding the cameras and questions makes him look guilty. Nope. Next.

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Option 2 | disappearing defendant
There are ways for Edwards to have completely avoided the press. As a reporter, I spent many hours waiting for high profile defendants to emerge from the courthouse. Lawyers frequently use back entrances, underground parking garages or waiting cars to speed away from the spotlight. Everyone knows Edwards never met a camera he didn’t like so why would he shy away now? Again, he’d look guilty. Next.

Option 3 | gang bang
(this is what reporters call it when a gaggle of journalists shove microphones in one person’s face and ask questions at the same time) If Edwards agreed to answer questions in this format, he’d be leaving himself exposed, at the mercy of reporters and with zero control. The sound bite of the day would likely not be a flattering one. No good.

Option 4 | defer to attorney
Ah yes, the typical, “My attorney can address that question.” This bugs me. From a legal standpoint it is clearly the wisest, but from a public perception/media manipulation standpoint, it is lame. Since the attorney wasn’t around when the alleged events occurred, why would anyone want to hear from him or her? Good attorneys generally give safe, boring sound bites. When was the last time you heard a major news story with safe, boring sound bites. When was the last time you gave two rips about what someone’s attorney said? It doesn’t make good TV and it rarely appears prominently in a newspaper story.

Option 5 | clear concise messaging
This is the option Edwards chose and it was a smart one. He delivered a 20 second well-crafted message that was long enough for him to publicly plead his case and short enough for the majority to be printed in newspapers and played in its entirety on the evening news. “There’s no question that I’ve done wrong,” Edwards said after the hearing. “I take full responsibility for having done wrong. I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I’ve caused others. But I did not break the law. And I never, ever thought that I was breaking the law.” His message is clear; he admitted to making a major moral mistake, but denied breaking the law. He used the media to his benefit and to bolster his shaky (OK that’s giving him credit) image. By denying legal wrongdoing, Edwards took control of the story and ensured his words would be part of the coverage.

While you and your organization probably won’t need this level of crisis communication, it is critical to consider all media options and select the one that gives you the most control. You want to remove the variables, be crystal clear with your message and deliver that message in a manner that satisfies the media. Oh yeah, I forgot the best option of all. If you are married and you meet a filmmaker or anyone in a bar and think about going back to your hotel room with that person. DON’T!

This post was written by Kristi Piehl and originally published on Media Minefield. Follow Kristi on Twitter: @mediaminefield