"As you know, the charges recently directed at me are terribly serious. They are, however, predicated on a big lie. This will be shown in court, and we will be able to put this horrible time behind us." Thus spoke pop star Michael Jackson. Or at least, that's what his open letter says on the front page of his new Web site, MJNews.us, labeled "the official press room."
Embattled celebrities are increasingly using the Web to connect with supporters, give their side of the story, and do damage control. On these "my turn" sites, there are no editors cutting up their words, lawyers and spinmeisters can vet content, and there are no off-the-cuff misstatements as might happen on a Fox News vein-popping shoutfest.
In his online letter, Jackson says the site is meant to serve as a source of official communications in the court case, in which he's accused of "lewd and lascivious conduct with a child under 14." So far, the site is mainly a series of press releases in reaction to prosecution actions. Jackson spokesman Stuart Backerman told me he is planning to launch a sister site, possibly under the domain of MJNetworks.com, which would include some of the thousands of letters of support that have come in for Jackson.
Jackson is not the first high-profile defendant to set up a Web site to give his side. Media doyenne Martha Stewart set up MarthaTalks.com in June. Former HealthSouth CEO Richard M. Scrushy set up a site after being charged with 85 counts, including conspiracy, money laundering, and securities fraud, in October. And former Minnesota beauty queen Dee Henderson's husband Ken set up TheTruthAboutDee.com to give her side of the story when she was accused of disability fraud by federal authorities.
In each case, the defendants are using the international reach of the Web to help get out their side of the story. For Backerman and Jackson, the Net actually helped to confer legitimacy when so many supposed "experts" were speaking on their behalf.
"In the very early day of this situation, many people were unauthorized and didn't have the information and were speaking for Michael Jackson," Backerman said. "The key reason for setting up the site was to say, these are the two people who are authorized to speak for Jackson: [lawyer] Mark Geragos and Stuart Backerman. We needed to mitigate the three-ring circus, so to speak. Every Tom, Dick and Harry was saying they represented Michael Jackson."
The Web also allowed Backerman to handle media correspondence in a level headed manner. "We wanted to handle it professionally and not grandstand in the media, and make statements in the heat of the moment," he said. "By putting the statements on the Web, everyone on God's earth could see who said what."
Most importantly, each Web posting can be perused by attorneys and PR handlers, who can comb through them to make sure they aren't giving ammunition to the prosecution. And when the media swarms on a story, the smaller outlets can get just as much background information as the larger ones just by going to the official Web site.
Paul Cashmere, who writes for the Australian online music site, Undercover.com.au, said the MJNews.us site helped give him a better view into Jackson's side of the story. "We do have to be mindful that MJNews.us is not the complete facts but having said that, everyone is innocent until proven guilty," Cashmere told me via e-mail. "Jackson deserves that very basic privilege as much as the next guy."
Quoting the Web site
One way to gauge the success of these online efforts is to see just how many media stories actually quote from the sites. In the case of MJNews.us, it became the only source of actual quotes from Jackson, who was not speaking directly to the media about the case. MarthaTalks.com also became the subject of many stories, garnering over 1 million hits on the day it launched in early June -- and topping 15 million hits total with more than 70,000 e-mail messages to Stewart.
Matt Benson is vice president of PR firm Citigate Sard Verbinnen, leads the firm's new media practice, and has collaborated with Stewart on MarthaTalks.com. "Martha Stewart has tens of thousands of fans and supporters who want to hear from her, and she wanted to be able to speak to them directly," he told me via e-mail. "A Web site struck us as the perfect solution. With the Internet so entrenched as a communications channel, it was only a small leap to the use the Web in a situation like this, where MarthaTalks.com appears to have quickly become something of a standard."
Unlike the Jackson site, MarthaTalks.com has Stewart's fingerprints all over the site, from its cheery photos to colored fonts to supportive e-mails. There's even a special open letter for Thanksgiving, including her plans to make mashed potato stuffing for the first time.
If Martha is on a charm offensive, former HealthSouth honcho Scrushy takes a much more combative approach. His site is labeled under the generic "News Service" title, and he has a section titled "Setting Things Straight" with headlines such as "Press Gets It Wrong Regarding Company Loans" and "Latest Press Inaccuracies."
(Scrushy did not respond to my queries for this story.)
TheTruthAboutDee.com takes a more human approach, with various photos of Dee Henderson's family and children. After a car accident, Henderson collected Social Security Disability Benefits, and later won the Mrs. Minnesota International beauty competition. Federal authorities filed a civil lawsuit in late August, alleging she received the benefits fraudulently. The site includes a timeline and facts from Dee's husband Ken, with input from a PR agency, and was launched in mid-September.
"The site helps for people who want the other side of the story," Dee Henderson told me. "For those who really care, it's a great way to get information. It's easier to say 'go there [to the site]' instead of having to go over it and over it. It's a way to deal with the masses and get your side out there."
It helped that Ken Henderson has set up Web sites before as a consultant for what he calls "non-traditional marketing." Ken Henderson told me he was happy the site had helped the media get correct background information. He said the press had reacted positively and negatively to the site. "[Some said] 'why would you set up a Web site if you haven't done anything wrong?'" he told me. "It goes to the premise of a rush to judgment. The truth of the matter is that we sat down with the media and gave them the facts, and [all we got was] a 20-second sound bite. How do you get balance back?"
While the Web gives defendants a platform to air their side, that platform could easily be squelched if a judge decides to issue a pretrial gag order for both sides. Ken Lammers, Jr., a Virginia criminal defense lawyer who operates the CrimLaw legal Weblog, says such sites should be set up as soon as possible to make a big splash before being shut down. But he also warns that defendants should keep their comments online as innocuous as possible.
"The big sin would be to give the prosecutor something to work with or providing an outline of the defense," Lammers told me via e-mail. "The upside of these sites is that they allow the defense to carefully craft the message and image. Someone with a temper need not worry about getting mad and saying the wrong thing or even the right thing in the wrong way. Instead, the defendant becomes a caring individual who has been put upon by over-ambitious, out-of-control prosecutors who should be concentrating on going out there and getting the 'real' criminals."
Jeff Lewis is a business litigator in Irvine with the firm of Enterprise Counsel Group, and runs the So Cal Law Blog. Lewis sees the possibility of the defendant sites strengthening their case with the public -- and potential jury pools -- but has reservations about them.
"A statement made by Jackson or Stewart today may not seem significant in light of the known evidence," he told me via e-mail. "But six months down the line [those comments] may become highly relevant. Moreover, once a statement is made on a Web site, it is out there in the public domain and difficult to undo. In my humble opinion...a high-profile criminal defendant should simply rely upon his or her attorney to speak with the press. Statements made by a criminal defendant prior to trial will rarely do more good than harm."