PR guru Mark Borkowski on the spin battle away from the courtroom
For a while there it was touch and go in the Michael Jackson trial. It should have been clearer cut than that, really. After all it was a celebrity’s word against a member of the public. And in America there’s usually only one winner in such cases. But it all worked out in the end once the spin took over.
The man he has to thank is not the hapless PR Raymone Bain, who spent the trial spreading the word of Jacko’s innocence from the parking lot of the courthouse all the way up to the Larry King Show and was rewarded with the sack, but his silver-haired defence lawyer Tom Mesereau.
If the secret to the best PR is the invisibility of the hands that spin then this was a campaign that an old PR pundit like me could salivate over. And God damn it, the man behind it wasn’t even a publicist.
Educated at Harvard and our own LSE, the Michael Mansfield lookalike specialises in high-profile cases. Especially ones that involve underprivileged defendants and ones where ‘African- Americans’ are fighting the white legal establishment. He came to Jacko on the recommendation of Mike Tyson, whom he had managed to exonerate from rape charges before the case even came to court, no mean achievement with a client with the form of Iron Mike.
We know what Mesereau did inside the court room, methodically discrediting the prosecution witnesses before wheeling out high-profile celebrities – Jay Leno, Diana Ross, Macaulay Culkin, Larry King – to bewitch the jurors. What is more interesting is his influence outside the court.
Jackson began the campaign with the sort of ill-timed overconfidence that comes from living in a bubble. Confronted by the ever-present crowd of crazed disciples camping outside the courtroom, he responded in the only language he understands – by giving them a showbiz moment. But this wasn’t showbiz. This was real life – something of which Jackson has always had only the most tenuous grasp – and his was on the line.
Dancing on the roof of a car might have made a pleasing photo opportunity but it dangerously damaged his credibility in the real world. Mesereau put a stop to it. No more singing, no more dancing, no more moon walking and definitely no more crotch-grabbing.
Considering the fact that Jackson has spent the last 40 years surrounded by sycophants trying to grab a slice of his fame and fortune, the message of ‘stop all this messing about or I’m out of here’ could easily have earned its bearer the sack. But coming from a man with Mesereau’s gravitas, it belatedly struck a chord with Jackson, whose freakish face and childlike fantasy world belies a shrewd business sense.
Once the case got under way Mesereau carefully began to pull the strings. Jacko’s confident demeanour, dangerously close to arrogance at the start, was replaced by frailty. There were the health scares, the sudden dashes to hospital, and the frenzied rushes to get to court on time – all making compelling a soap opera beamed into US prime time TV. Suddenly sympathy was being felt for Jacko as he wasted away before our eyes. And where did the internet scams that hoaxed Jackson’s suicide come from? Hey, after all, he is a vulnerable guy. That’s how he got into this mess in the first place.
Jackson’s Achilles heel is his naivete, but where there’s naivete there’s vulnerability, which can be played for sympathy, and that’s what Mesereau played on in the courtroom drama unfolding in Santa Maria.
There had already been leaks to the media, information that chipped away at the credibility of Gavin Arviso’s mother, the most crucial witness for the prosecution.
The jurors, of course, are not meant to read the press but they are human, after all. One of them has already admitted doing so. And of course they talk to friends and relatives who do know what’s going on. The seeds of doubt had been sown.
Then, with the jury softened up, came Mesereau’s pièce de résistance as he called in the A-list to do their job. Celeb after celeb pulled up in their limousines, waved to the crowds, and took the oath to testify to Jacko’s all-round wonderfulness and dependability as a fellow celeb.
In the end, of course, Jacko walked free. Just as we always knew he would. Now, in order to resume what’s left of his career, he needs to find some more good advisers and listen to them, even if it means hearing things that he finds hard to take. Hang on to stern words, MJ. They might just come from the folk that love you the most.