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a legal communicator's worst nightmare

«due diligence gone awry on Friday The 13th»

Something went wrong at the Essex County, New Jersey, Prosecutor's Office on Friday the 13th.

Their breaking-news machine broke.

A grand jury target in a sexual assault case apparently had been no-billed but, inexplicably, the office announced  his indictment.

It's every legal communicator's biggest fear: indicting the wrong defendant in the news and then trying to get all the electrons back, an impossibility. "Excuse me sir, will you please delete that incorrect news report from your BlackBerry?" 

In The News

Did the original and incorrect indictment story made it onto 1010 WINS Newsradio in New York City, which I believe to be the number one Arbitron-rated AM station in its market? A corrected version did.. The story appeared in Philadelphia on the Web site maintained by the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, and who knows where else in cyberspace via the Associated Press's state or regional wires. Maybe the no-billed victim's grandchildren can Google the article a half century from now.

At some point before 6:09 PM, Saturday the 14th (when the prosecutor's office usually is closed) someone from that office notified the media about the blunder. The AP brief containing the retraction references a "corrected statement Saturday." As of 7 a.m. on Monday the 16th I was unable to find the prosecutor's correction or the original, now-redacted, news release in the news section of the prosecutor's Web site.  The most recent news release in that news section is from February 11th.

In a blog I found what appears to be a portion of the original Friday announcement from the  prosecutor's office. Unfortunately it doesn't "tie down," for me, whether the named assistant prosecutor, the prosecutor, or the public affairs office sent out the original, incorrect news release.

Due Diligence - Legal Media Relations Style

The instant I saw the AP's retraction I winced. It's a legal communicator's worst nightmare.

As the spokesman for federal and state prosecutors, and today as a legal media relations strategist for plaintiff and defense firms at PRforLAW, LLC , I take pains to make sure that indictments, pleas, convictions, settlements and other breaking-news case milestones have occurred before reaching out to the media.

Whether the case involves a major corporation with publicly traded stock or "an average grand jury target" expecting to be indicted I won't now and didn't then make a move to the media until the anticipated action has been confirmed directly to me verbally by the AUSA, Deputy AG, or attorney of record.  

"Eating The News"

On a couple of occasions at the U.S. Attorney's Office I sat helplessly with news packages ready for dissemination, waiting for the case AUSA to call me and confirm that the action had occurred. But no call came and no news was released.  On a couple of occasions I was told to automatically issue a news release after a certain date and /time. No way.  I never wanted to experience what apparently happened in Essex County on Friday.

I never was told by an Assistant U.S. Attorney, or state Deputy Attorney General that their indictment was returned or plea entered and disseminated my news package only to find out that that I was given an inaccurate go-ahead. But if I had been misinformed I wouldn't have had to fall on that sword.

(Ironically, Newark, New Jersey is not just in Essex County, it's where the federal building is  located where I worked for a decade managing public affairs for three U.S. Attorneys: the Hon. Samuel A. Alito, Jr; the Hon. Michael Chertoff; and the Hon. Faith S. Hochberg.)

Posted February 16, 2009

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Richard Lavinthal prepares national media for a news conference at the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey when Michael Chertoff was U.S. Attorney

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