The Arrest of Erin Brockovich and a Media Firestorm
Presented by Edwin Lyngar, Nevada Division of Wildlife
Notes by Dan Dennison, Senior Communications Manager, Hawaii Dept. of Land & Natural Resources; Lee McClellan, Assoc. Editor, Kentucky Afield Magazine
We in the information and education branches of our state fish and wildlife agencies can certainly sympathize with the plight of Edwin Lyngar, public affairs coordinator for the law enforcement division of the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW). Those in our business with any mileage on their careers likely have witnessed a tantrum by a wealthy or politically connected “mover” or a celebrity caught violating game laws or driving a boat while drunk.
Erin Brockovich’s name became a virtual household moniker for a time in 2000, with the release of the highly acclaimed biopic, “Erin Brockovich.” The box-office hit, starring Julie Roberts as Ms. Brockovich-Ellis, chronicled her battle against Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and raised her stature from law clerk to nationally recognized environmental activist.
In June 2013, Brockovich-Ellis was again in the news after being arrested by a Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) warden for operating a boat under the influence of alcohol.
Edwin Lyngar, long-time boating education public information officer for NDOW, outlined for ACI conference attendees the challenges he and his agency faced in dealing with the media firestorm that resulted after the Brockovich-Ellis arrest.
When the film was released in 2000, digital media was in its relative infancy. Yahoo, Google, TMZ and a vast array of digital news, information and entertainment websites were extremely young or not even around. Lyngar discovered that not only would he have to deal with “traditional” mainstream news organizations, but also with web-only media outlets. Both types created a special set of challenges and as you’ll learn a little later, sometimes you can leverage old-school media to your advantage in a breaking news situation of this type.
The facts: On Friday June 7, 2013, a novice NDOW warden observed Brockovich-Ellis having difficulty tying her boat up at a dock at Lake Mead. He tried to help her and noticed signs of intoxication, investigated, and then arrested her. Brockovich-Ellis was cooperative throughout the entire incident.
Lyngar quickly learned, that despite the passage of 13 years since Brockovich’s name became widely known, the entertainment media (traditional and new media) had enormous interest in her arrest, and this severely strained NDOW agency resources. The lessons learned included:
- Adding a celebrity element to any circumstance creates a situation of extreme interest among the media.
- Celebrity incidents can and will test your agency’s crisis communications skills, practices and procedures.
- Under the gaze of “infotainment” news outlets, the traditional rules of outreach and public relations will be tested and may not follow your tried-and-true methods of releasing information.
Lyngar told the ACI group, “In these days, fame is more commonplace, harder to quantify and drives the news cycle like few other things.” He learned of the Brockovich-Ellis arrest from the arresting officer about 2 1/2 hours after it happened. The story initially broke the morning following her arrest on the entertainment and Hollywood gossip website, TMZ.
Its headline, “Erin Brockovich Arrested for Drunk Driving…A BOAT!!!” was billed as an exclusive and perhaps provides some clues about the tone and scope of the coverage to follow. Lyngar was initially instructed to hold on releasing information.
After the TMZ post, NDOW did issue a press statement, that like everything that followed, was fact-based and did not stray into editorializing about Brockovich-Ellis’ mistake or her celebrity and provided an opportunity to spread the message about the risks and dangers of boating while intoxicated. Over the weekend Lyngar received some 40 interview requests; most included a request for the booking photo. Sunday night, growing weary of the barrage of media calls, Lyngar did an extensive interview with the Associated Press. (Author’s note: most news organizations, traditional and otherwise, are AP members; it is an efficient and generally accurate way to get information out broadly and quickly.)
Lyngar said his shop made a mistake by not issuing a statement detailing the arrest before the story broke on national media. He felt a preemptive statement would have given the Nevada Department of Wildlife leverage to drive the story, not be driven by it. He emphatically believes that immediate, full disclosure is the best plan of action in situations such as this.
Unbeknownst to Lyngar and the NDOW, at the time of her booking, Brockovich-Ellis had recently undergone some plastic surgery on her face. Her booking photograph, released on Monday, showed her with a swollen, puffy face; likely the result of the surgery and not of her drinking. In retrospect, this author wonders whether some sort of statement indicating her “look” was due to surgery and not associated with her intoxication might have blunted any media misinterpretation about why she looked the way she did. Or is this something left to Brockovich-Ellis and her publicist?
The release of the photo reignited the extreme media interest and was accompanied by a follow-up press statement that provided nothing new and simply reiterated the facts of the case. Lyngar admitted the photo may have been pejorative, though it was released after consultation and permission from the District Attorney’s Office. In his ACI presentation he termed the release of this particular photo as, “unfortunate.” Eventually, with the exception of TMZ, media interest waned and Brockovich-Ellis moved into the mode of handling her own crisis communications.
Three days after her arrest, on June 10, Brockovich-Ellis released her own media statement, which Lyngar characterized as a “savvy apology.” He said this served to blunt the impact of the final report which, he added, included some unfortunate, not-previously released detail.
About a month after her arrest, Brockovich-Ellis did an hour-long interview with Katie Couric, during which she publicly apologized. This, according to Lyngar, basically ended any worry of a “legal defense,” showed the sophistication of her own crisis communications management, and basically ended the story.
Lyngar’s ACI presentation was intended as an instructive and cautionary tale for any conservation communicator who may face a “celebrity” incident in the future. In addition to the lessons noted above, what else did NDOW and its communicators learn from this incident?
- Treat celebrities with the same kind of compassion shown to everyone our agencies contact, apprehend or report on.
- Issue media statements preemptively, rather than waiting for one or more media organizations to learn about it. This helps you manage the message from the start.
- Consider releasing mug shots/booking photos via agency social media or websites, rather than through an email blast to the media.
- Celebrity and gossip media outlets don’t follow the same rules as traditional media. Information personnel at fish and wildlife agencies should show extreme caution in dealing with them.
- Conduct better explanatory follow-up with reporters or key news organizations to best ensure consistency of messaging.
- In the case of a celebrity arrest, try to convince prosecutors to include participation in a public service announcement as a term of the penalty.
- Use incidents like this to draw attention to and further messaging about safe boating (or another subject matter).
“For one shining moment, Erin Brockovich helped us shine the spotlight on sober boating. She’s put this incident behind her. However, there may be a time in the life of your agency, when you are called upon to deal with a celebrity case. We hope the lessons we learned, will provide some valuable guidance for you, when caught in the harsh glare of the celebrity spotlight and media feeding frenzy,” Lyngar concluded.