Holmes Report 31 Mar 2014 // 4:31PM GMT
In late 2012, Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, a highly decorated combat veteran and deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, was charged with sexual assault. Initial media coverage was toxic; he was tried and convicted in the court of public opinion before the case even went to trial.
Friends and supporters approached MWW’s crisis communications group and asked if we could help set the record straight. We perform a wide range of services for corporate clients, including crisis plan development; media monitoring and analysis; press relations; and war-room setup and staffing. While litigation support is well within our wheel house, we had never worked on a military court martial. But we agreed to take the assignment when we looked at the evidence.
The evidence showed that General Sinclair made a number of bad personal decisions, but he didn’t assault anyone. He had an extramarital affair with a junior officer, and when that officer came to realize that he didn’t intend to leave his wife, she understandably became angry and reported the relationship. As the second party to an adulterous relationship, the accuser also faced legal exposure. She soon amended her account, claiming that on two occasions she was forced to engage in sexual activity.
If convicted, the general faced life in prison. His accuser was granted immunity from adultery charges.
MWW’s team spent several days reading through evidence. The accuser’s own contemporaneous diaries, emails, and texts sharply contradicted her sworn statements and pre-trial testimony.
In today’s hyper-charged political environment, the general became a national poster child for sexual assault in the military – a very real problem in which this case got entangled. Our mandate was to level the playing field before trial. We consciously targeted our message to a military audience, as that stakeholder group was immediately relevant to securing a fair trial.
Our over-arching strategy was to impose transparency on normally secretive military proceedings. We helped the general’s supporters create a defense website that laid out the story behind the charges and invited readers to read dozens of pages of documentary evidence. Within just five days of going live, the site attracted 11,000 unique visitors and 47,000 page views. But numbers alone don’t tell the story. Analytics showed that we were speaking to the audience we needed to reach in these early weeks: persons on U.S. military bases and at the Pentagon.
The novelty of this approach also garnered national coverage and helped journalists see past vague but sensationalistic charges. In turn, they contributed balanced and nuanced reporting.
Critically, we were mindful of the need to explain why the main charges were non-credible without creating an environment that dissuaded sexual assault victims from coming forward and reporting. It was the greatest challenge in this case, and it was important personally to the team members. We kept the spotlight on the Army, rather than the general’s accuser, whose anonymity we scrupulously protected.
That task grew easier in early 2013 when General Sinclair brought on a civilian law firm, Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads, to manage his defense.
Led by Richard Scheff, a former federal prosecutor, the lawyers unearthed compelling evidence that several top Army lawyers considered the accuser non-credible but nevertheless pressed ahead with the most serious charges. The immediate objectives of the lawyers (get the worst charges dropped) and the PR professionals (correct misinformation) dovetailed perfectly. We agreed that that transparency would trump secrecy.
In the weeks before trial, the legal and communications teams worked with the New York Times to develop a series of dramatic, game-changing stories revealing that the lead prosecutor had resigned over concerns that the accuser lied to him and committed perjury at a pre-trial hearing. Other national outlets soon followed with equally compelling and rigorously-reported coverage.
At Fort Bragg, we ran a textbook media operation, including twice-daily press availabilities with defense attorneys, regular briefings, and document sharing and analysis. While the Army remained opaque, we were fully forthcoming with information. Journalists appreciated our transparency and covered the trial fairly.
For the MWW team, the crowning moment came in the opening days of the trial, when the NYT ran a front-page article entitled, “How a Military Sexual Assault Case Foundered.” The moment of great relief came when the government dropped the assault charges against General Sinclair and allowed him to plead to a series of lesser offenses, most of which are not considered criminal in the civilian world.
This wasn’t just any litigation support assignment. When a high-profile individual or institution is involved, the usual rules of engagement don’t necessarily apply. In this case, the lawyers and PR professionals agreed early on a strategy and stuck to it. In so doing, we helped a war hero clear his name of false charges.
Josh Zeitz is the deputy director of MWW’s Corporate Reputation Practice and a member of the firm’s crisis communications group.