Winning in the Court of Public Opinion: 25 Years After the OJ Simpson Trial

By | July 1, 2019

In case you missed it, OJ Simpson wants to set the record straight…and has taken to Twitter to do so. While some may view this as a move of a desperate has-been sports star/presumed murderer to remain relevant, it also points to the power and longevity of the court of public opinion. Twenty-five years after the famous white Bronco chase and the even more famous line “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit” it is clear that success in a court of law does not always translate into the preservation of a reputation.

What is remarkable is the ubiquity of “knowledge” about the OJ Simpson trial and opinions about a person who would be otherwise meaningless to Millennials and Gen Z – who don’t remember his football career, don’t remember his Hertz commercials and don’t remember the actual trial. Yet more than half a million people have signed up to follow him as he “sets the record straight” and the immediate rise in protests and suggestions that people following OJ should use the power of their follows for a more important cause. All over a case that occurred before Twitter was invented.

So, what does it take to win in the court of public opinion today?

A winning narrative – At the time of the OJ Simpson trial there were two competing narratives – the prosecutor’s narrative of jealous rage by a man without boundaries vs. the defense’s “if the gloves don’t fit.” While the defense narrative worked well enough to convince a jury, questions about his guilt or innocence have remained. Twenty-five years ago, we had the influence of round the clock cable news commentary influencing the news cycle and public opinion, but the sources were more limited. Today our lives are inundated with media sources, and oftentimes different narratives that come with each.

A personally-delivered, authentic message – Just like people 25 years ago wanted to hear OJ say he didn’t do it, people today want to hear directly from the source – whether it is a celebrity, a company or an elected official.  This can create difficult scenarios where a legal strategy prohibits sharing the whole story, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share any story. Too often, clients become “paralyzed” by what they can’t do and say and forget about what they can do and say. And do so quickly, before an alternative narrative solidifies.

Getting socially active – Social media provides a platform for people to congregate and converse about topics that are important to them. And they are doing it, with or without you. A heartfelt video message delivered via your social channels can create a shared basis of information to rally support for your position or your cause. It is the easiest way to reach thousands, or even millions, or people in a way that feels personal, meaningful and transparent.

The details – Think carefully about how, when, and by whom your message is delivered. It is important to use a spokesperson who can “own” the topic, while remaining relatable and approachable; the timing needs to be quick enough to “control the narrative” but not so fast that it appears insensitive or otherwise inappropriate. And the medium matters. A legal corporate statement will do little to garner stakeholder sympathy or support.

So, what does all of this mean for OJ Simpson? The proverbial jury is still out….his opponents remain vocal and passionate, 25 years later. And some of the jokes are just too easy to pass up. So, he may be too late for winning the narrative. But he is getting social and trying to be transparent and authentic – and America does love a great comeback story, so you never know.OJ Simpson photo

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