Liability lawyers don’t have to overrule common sense or humanity


A captivating and tragic story in Buffalo the last year is the death of young skateboarder Alix Rice, struck on her way home from her summer job by the BMW 750 driven by a drunk Dr. James Corasanti. He was acquitted at trial of the most serious charges, but a judge sentenced him yesterday to a year in jail for DWI.

The acquittal earlier this summer outraged many following the case because Corasanti’s guilt seemed so clear. But the point of this discussion is not guilt or innocence; it’s humanity.

Alix Rice’s parents each spoke in court thursday prior to Judge Sheila DiTullio’s sentencing. Corasanti sat stoically, not looking at either parent, staring ahead with the look of an angry school principal.

He said nothing before or after the court session. He’s done no interviews since the July 2011 collision. No doubt his attorneys restricted what he could say. His insurance company knows it will have to pay major financial damages. Lawyers’ often rule at times like this, but they don’t have to.

In a crisis, a liability lawyer should certainly be at the table. But so should common sense. Defense attorney Joel Daniels referenced dozens of letters from Corasanti’s patients. Some said he’d saved their lives. The dichotomy between the life-saving physician and the stubbornly silent DWI offender was stark.

But a crisis manager also deserves a spot at the table. The advice could be, ‘you can express remorse and human sympathy for what transpired without admitting guilt that will add more to the insurance company’s bottom line.’ In fact, there are some smart insurance companies that provide crisis management services as a rider available to clients. It’s a useful decision.

It is possible to apologize and take responsibility for your actions without accepting blame, admitting guilt or acknowledging wrongdoing. Current evidence suggests this strategy also minimizes damages and reduces the risk of further litigation.

Nothing should have prevented Corasanti from expressing human compassion for what he wrought. He would not have avoided jail time. It was clear that DiTullio had no sympathy for his behavior and some will extrapolate from her maximum sentence that she disagreed with the verdict. That’s irrelevant at this point.

But Corasanti’s lawyers, who served him so well “winning” acquittal at trial, did him a major disservice by not allowing him to speak to the community, to Rice’s parents and to his supporters. EMA, thanks to crisis guru Peter Kapcio, has over the years compiled a list of advice for attorneys. Corasanti would have benefitted mightily from following most of them. Here they are:

1. Would you ever advise a client to defend themselves in court? Arguing his own case in the Court of Public Opinion is no different. It would do your client absolutely no good to win in court, only to lose his good reputation. Both perception and reality must be managed if the organization expects to continue operating after the legal battle is over.

2. If you and/or your client don’t actively manage his reputation, someone else will. Chances are neither you nor your client will like the results. There are two (or more) sides to every conflict or controversy. Avoiding or refusing to speak to the media only guarantees that your side won’t be heard.

3. The damage from negative press is not correlated to its intensity… it’s a function of time. The greater the duration, the greater the damage. Your primary strategy is always to get any controversy, conflict or crisis behind you as soon as possible.

4. Over 90% of what you communicate is how you look and how you sound while you’re saying it.

5. If bad news is going to come out anyway, it’s best if it comes from you – not your opponents, critics, adversaries or the media, especially social media. People respond far more positively to bad news than to uncertainty, unanswered questions or shifty responses. Being first to reveal a negative story about yourself marks you as a “stand up guy” and defuses suspicion and hostility. You only get one chance to shape the story so get all bad news out at once. Ignoring bad news doesn’t make it go away and covering up bad news never helps – they merely cause problems that spiral out of control.

6. “No comment” is not an option. Remaining silent means you agree with your critics, and that nearly always equals “Guilty as charged.” Today, both the media and the public demand institutional transparency. When the news media sniffs a cover-up, the risk of igniting a media frenzy increases enormously.

7. Facts are your friends. Facts are specific… platitudes are ignored. Show the media that you will be their primary source for facts, and they will treat you very differently.

8. “I don’t know” can often be the best/smartest answer – especially when it’s a fact. Don’t let your ego/pride/emotions prevent you from using it.

9. There’s no such thing as “off the record.” Don’t say it if you don’t want to read it in tomorrow’s paper.

10. Speed is everything when responding to a controversy, conflict or crisis. The only way to control one is to get out in front of it, and you only get one chance. If trouble is coming, the earlier public relations counsel is involved, the better.

11. Crisis communications, done properly, should never jeopardize your case. In nearly all situations, legal and public relations counsel can agree upon a mutually advantageous strategy. In those rare instances where it is impossible, then you must work with public relations professionals who understand legal considerations must always take precedence.

Finally, as noted above,

12. It is possible to apologize and take responsibility for solving a problem without accepting blame, admitting guilt or acknowledging wrongdoing. Current evidence suggests this strategy also
minimizes damages and reduces the risk of further litigation.

Many of these apply to the Corasanti case. He should have stood on his own and apologized. He should have at least looked at Alix Rice’s parents and respected their comments.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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