On Trial in the Court of Public Opinion

July 2, 2012

On June 3, George Zimmerman waited in a humid Central Florida parking lot with his attorney, Mark O’Mara. Around 1:25 p.m., deputies from the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office arrived and arrested the 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer for the second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin.

At 1:37 p.m., the news began trending on Twitter.

Social media is an increasingly common forum for announcing breaking news. What was unusual in this case is that Zimmerman’s veteran attorney relied on unconventional social media tools to manage the media and public attention focused on his client. Florida prosecutors have charged Zimmerman in the shooting death of Martin, the Miami teenager who died on Feb. 26 while returning from a convenience store near the gated community in Sanford, Fla., which he and his father were visiting.

Besides a Twitter account, O’Mara’s in-house communications adviser created a branded strategy that included a logo for the “GZ CASE,” a Facebook page and a website called GZLegalCase.com, with a blog and PayPal account for donations to Zimmerman’s defense fund.

For defense attorneys and PR professionals working in the legal industry, creating a social-media strategy for clients is a new phenomenon. This uncharted territory has drawn praise and criticism.

Nicole Black, author of “Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier,” told NPR, “The social media sites are a way for Zimmerman’s defense team to control the message.”

But other observers say that O’Mara’s social media strategy carries risk. In a Poynter Institute interview, New York attorney and blogger Scott Greenfield said, “You have to understand the dynamic of the Internet and understand that you’re playing with a monster that will devour you if you screw up.”

According to Florida Bar rules, attorneys are restricted from making comments that media outlets will publish and harm the fairness of a court case. The Florida Bar revised its guidelines about networking sites in May, but they primarily address the use of social media for promoting firms.

O’Mara, who came to national attention as a legal commentator during the Casey Anthony trial, has practiced criminal and family law in Central Florida for 28 years. He is a former felony prosecutor and past president of the Seminole County Bar Association.

On April 27, O’Mara launched this digital media presence on behalf of his client’s defense. The next day, he posted an article titled, “Why Social Media for George Zimmerman,” in which he identified seven objectives for the site, including  “disputing misinformation” and “discouraging speculation.”

By April 30, O’Mara’s online initiatives became a story separate from Zimmerman’s legal issues. (This is the first time that he has taken this action on behalf of any client, and some say that it’s the first time that any defense attorney has done so.)

Using social media

To understand the context and significance of O’Mara’s strategy, it’s important to look at two forces that preceded the launch of the George Zimmerman legal case social media initiatives. The first was the high-profile Anthony murder trial, and the second was the fact that Trayvon Martin’s family used social media.

The same media market covering the Zimmerman case consists of many of the same reporters and media outlets that covered the Anthony case one year ago. Many PR and media experts dubbed that case — involving an Orlando mother accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter — as “the first social media trial.”

In fact, a media committee created to manage courtroom logistics in the Anthony trial is now assisting the public information officer in the nearby Seminole circuit, where Zimmerman’s legal case is proceeding. David Sirak, the news programmer at the local ABC affiliate, WFTV-Channel 9 — who earned rave reviews for the fair and professional way he handled media access in the Anthony case — is the head of the committee.
Amy Singer, president of Trial Consultants Inc., said that more than a million people blogged about the Anthony trial. And her team monitored 40,000 blogs, chat rooms and Facebook pages to see what people thought about the case.

Of course, the Anthony case is not the only history-making instance involving social media. As O’Mara noted on the case website: “Social media, in this day and age, cannot be ignored. It is now a critical part of presidential politics, it has been part of revolutions in the Middle East and it is going to be an unavoidable part of high-profile legal cases, just as traditional media has been and continues to be. We feel it would be irresponsible to ignore the robust online conversation, and we feel equally as strong about establishing a professional, responsible and ethical approach to new media.”

Gaining traction

By the time that O’Mara started representing Zimmerman, the Internet was already a hotbed of controversy surrounding Martin’s death on Feb. 26.

At first, the story only gained nominal attention in the traditional media. According to many accounts, Martin’s grieving parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, were frustrated that law enforcement officials had not arrested Zimmerman.

Tracy Martin contacted Tallahassee attorney Benjamin Crump, who agreed to represent Trayvon Martin’s family. Crump asked Orlando attorney Natalie Jackson, a former naval intelligence officer and founder of the Women’s Trial Group, to assist him. Jackson hired Ryan Julison, president of Julison Communications, who specializes in public relations and crisis communications.

The story of the shooting seemed to fade initially. The Washington Post reported that Julison’s attempt to revive interest wasn’t very successful until March 7, when Reuters released a story on the case. The next day, “CBS This Morning” aired a piece, highlighting Tracy Martin’s outrage that Zimmerman wasn’t in custody. Other  media outlets followed suit, and the story gained national momentum.

Attracting national attention

Zimmerman attorney O’Mara launched GZLegalCase.com into this volatile social media atmosphere. At the end of May, O’Mara reviewed his social media efforts to assess what his team accomplished.

“By all accounts, GZLegalCase.com is not a blockbuster website,” O’Mara said.

In the first 25 days, the site had 80,000 visits. After May 6, O’Mara said that the site averaged 1,000 daily visits.

He also established GZDefenseFund.com. And before officials arrested Zimmerman, he had set up his own website called therealgeorgezimmerman.com, which received more than $200,000 in donations, according to O’Mara. He advised Zimmerman to shut down the site.

Instead, O’Mara received certification from the Florida Division of Consumer Services to allow the legal defense fund to properly accept donations. He chose a third-party administrator who is a former IRS agent to attend to the funds. As of the end of May, O’Mara said that hundreds of donors had given more than $30,000 toward Zimmerman’s defense.

Each social media initiative brought its own challenges. The George Zimmerman Legal Case page on Facebook was by far “the most active and potentially volatile of the online properties,” O’Mara said.

He also developed a moderation policy, and his in-house communications adviser aggressively polices the site. O’Mara thinks the site has set a tone that discourages speculation, treats the prosecution with respect and does not tolerate disparaging remarks about the Martin family.

“We hope the example of our behavior is carried to other forums,” O’Mara wrote in an assessment of The George Zimmerman Legal Case.

O’Mara believes that his social media initiatives support the seven objectives he initially established. Some of the achievements include shutting down unauthorized websites, quelling rumors on Twitter and Facebook, providing an effective forum for media requests and facilitating donations for the defense.

If all goes as expected, then the case will likely go to trial in 2013. In the meantime, the use of social media in high-profile cases will continue to fascinate PR professionals watching the evolution of these platforms and is bound to maintain scrutiny in the court of public opinion.

Doris Bloodsworth, APR

Doris Bloodsworth, APR, is an award-winning writer and president of Crosswords Communications Co. in Central Florida. She graduated with highest honors with a degree in journalism from the University of Florida. Email: dorisbloodsworth@gmail.com.


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