In today’s 24/7 news cycle attorneys must be cognizant of media attention and how to handle high profile cases that end up becoming newsworthy. Nowadays, you can take a case involving a 16 year-old high school student doing a partially nude photo spread for the school newspaper and wake up with 50 voicemails the next morning from various local and national media outlets. How do you handle this media attention?
Daniel M. Gilleon has spent more than a decade at the forefront of San Diego’s personal injury and civil rights litigation. Known as a tenacious litigator, his outstanding track record makes him a distinguished legal voice in the local and national media. Mr. Gilleon practices in the areas of personal injury, employment law and civil rights.
Legal Ink: How did you get your first high profile case?
I stumbled across two high profile cases, right about the same time. One involved an employee at UCLA cutting up cadavers and selling their body parts. The other involved a 15 year old high school girl who was convinced by a teacher to pose nude for photographs that were published in the high school magazine. The nude photo story got the most attention.
Legal Ink: How was your first time in front live television?
DG: By the time I appeared on live t.v., I had done a few recorded interviews. Now, I find the recorded interviews more difficult. Then, live was quite intimidating. I was on Hannity & Colmes, which was viewed by millions of people around the world. Not only was that scary, but the whole set up was anxiety provoking. I was sat down in a chair, in a dark room, with the only light being a spot light directed at me, from just above the camera, which was situated across the room. Hannity and Colmes were in New York when they interviewed me, and I had very little explanation beforehand as to what to expect. I survived.
Legal Ink: What is the biggest challenge in working a high profile case?
DG: The hardest thing is predicting the effect the media exposure will have on the case. First, you don’t know what angle the reporter will take. Even when it’s positive, the exposure can cause problems for the parties in the case, and they always react differently. The best case scenarios are when everything goes well, your client makes a good impression, the feedback is positive, and witnesses you’d never otherwise discover come out of the woodwork.
Legal Ink: Why deal with the media in the first place? Is it worth it?
DG: The best reason is to uncover witnesses who you could never have discovered otherwise. The Anthony Arevalos, Lipstick Bounty Hunters, and Bob Filner cases are good examples. Also, when the case involves an important public interest, media exposure helps society change through a public dialogue and the raising of public awareness to the problem. A good example was the Subway “Big Mama” case where an overweight Subway customer was discriminated against. The fact weight is not yet a protected classification in civil rights laws will eventually change when the public realizes how often overweight people are discriminated against on a daily basis.
Legal Ink: What are the challenges of working in a 24/7 news cycle and how can it be leveraged to your benefit?
DG: The benefits of the news coverage will tend to die down fairly quickly because the networks are constantly pumping out new stories to satiate the hunger for more. However, I preserve the news stories on Youtube, and social media.
Legal Ink: How has social media made things easier to get your story out? Or has it made managing a high profile case that much harder.
DG: It’s great. I can keep stories alive through social media. I tweet old stories all the time when they become relevant.
Legal Ink: What are the best practices when you pitch a story to a news source? What makes a case newsworthy?
DG: Understand your audience, which is a skeptical reporter who will in turn have to pitch the story to their editors. Keep your pitch to 20 seconds. If it involves sex, schools, police, or other triggers, get those out right away. “A cop pulls over a gorgeous 20 year old girl and …”
Legal Ink: What if the media turns on you?
DG: Gear up for a concise statement of how the story is wrong, and post the response at the network’s reply section, as well as social media. Write the reporter and demand a correction, which is much easier these days. You can up this tactic by demanding a retraction under the Civil Code (within 20 days to give itmore effect).
Legal Ink: Does your appearance really matter on television? How have you changed your look since taking on high profile media cases?
DG: Of course. There’s rarely a good reason not to wear a suit and tie. If your face is shiny, fix it with powder. T.V. adds weight so I plan to go on a diet soon.
Dan Gilleon’s course “How to Handle Cases with High Media Attention” is available for CLE credit at Attorney Credits. The course is currently available for CLE credit in the following states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, and Washington.