Attorneys should never — NEVER — be used as a public spokesman for celebrities or athletes when they are in the midst of a public relations crisis, and if anyone needed evidence to back up that thesis, the attorney for FSU quarterback De’Andre Johnson just ponied it up for all to see.
But, let’s recap the incident, first. The State Attorney’s office released today (July 6) a barroom surveillance camera video taken June 22 clearly showing De’Andre Johnson using a closed fist to punch a woman in the face. The incident unfolded in only a few seconds, but the buildup took a few minutes. A blonde woman had been waiting patiently for two other women to order and receive their drinks, and when they moved from the bar, she wedged herself between other patrons to take the newly empty space. Just as she had done so, Johnson appears in the camera frame, appearing to attempt to get into the same spot at the bar.
The woman reacted angrily, and tried to push Johnson away, and he reacted by punching her in the face, then running away out of the camera frame. Johnson has been charged with misdemeanor battery and has been suspended indefinitely from the FSU football team.
By any stretch, this was an incredibly stupid thing to do. It’s not like Johnson wasn’t already under the microscope of the media, his teammates, FSU and the NCAA. However, his lack of poor judgment at the bar was exacerbated by the statement his attorney, Jose Baez sent to the media just hours after the video was released.
“While it is clear from the video that De’Andre Johnson was not the initial aggressor, his family wants to take the lead in helping him learn and grow from this experience. He is currently participating in community service, and faith-based programs focused on battered women, substance abuse, and the empowerment of children. De’Andre is extremely embarrassed by this situation and would like to express his heartfelt apologies to everyone, including those who were directly affected, Coach Fisher and his team mates, the entire Florida State University community, as well as his family and friends.”
Let’s look at this statement from a PR perspective, first.
- Victim-shaming — The first thing the attorney’s statement does is blame the woman who got bashed in the head by indicating that she was the aggressor. The conclusion that begs is that the woman got what she deserved, which is not going to play well with the media, fathers, mothers, daughters… well, it’s not going to play well with anyone, period. After releasing the statement, Baez — notable for having successfully defended Casey Anthony against charges she had murdered her daughter — appeared on NBC’s Today Show to reiterate his assertion that the woman was the aggressor. He claimed that she struck Johnson twice before he punched her, though the video does not appear to back his assertions.
- Obfuscation — Right after blaming the woman, the statement then goes on to talk about the healing that Johnson is attempting, through faith-based programs and education. Wait a minute — isn’t that what the Duggar’s did when they discovered their son molested their daughters? VERY bad optics, and it indicates that his healing will come before his punishment. He IS charged with a crime here. Aren’t attorneys supposed to address legal issues, like crimes?
- Heartfelt Apologies — His attorney said that Johnson wanted to extend his heartfelt apologies. Well, where I come from, attorneys don’t deliver heartfelt anything, let alone apologies. Grown men step up to the plate and deliver heartfelt apologies directly. If it’s a heartfelt statement, an attorney cannot possibly deliver it.
- Gaping holes — What about the woman he hit? What about her healing? What about her inconvenience in this whole thing? Her face and name are going to be all over the news because she had the bad fortune of encountering a college football star at a bar. Her life is about to be turned upside down for the next few months. Instead of blaming her, how about saying something to apologize for the pain she is feeling, both in her jaw and in her life?
Lawyers are trained on how to deal with courtroom litigation, where rules exists with regard to which evidence can be admitted and which evidence that cannot be admitted. In the court of public opinion, there are NO rules. Attorneys are not prepared to handle the media, nor the public outcry that comes with a PR scandal. They are trained in how to get a jury’s sympathy, which typically involves reducing the credibility of the witnesses against their client, and then turning the tables to make the victim look like the criminal. In court, that’s a proper defense strategy, supported by the rules of evidence and the judge’s instructions to what the jury may and may not consider in their verdict.
That strategy, however, does not work in the court of public opinion, where there is no judge to tell people what evidence to weigh. In the public eye, everything is on the table. Moreover, this continued strategy will portray Johnson as an unrepentant, spoiled brat who thinks he is above the law and common courtesy. If he has any sense left in his addled brain, he’ll fire that attorney today, plead guilty to the charge of assault, take whatever punishment is handed to him with humility and hire a PR consultant to help prepare him for the interviews in which he will fall on his sword and admit his culpability for the entire incident.
He has already lost his spot on the team. If he allows his attorney to continue his victim-shaming ways, he’ll lose far more than that in the long run.
(Tony Panaccio is a former award-winning journalist who has worked in the media for more than 30 years. He freelances as a blogger and media consultant, and is a frequent collaborator with French/West/Vaughan.)