Amanda Knox Case: What’s Wrong With a PR Supertanker?

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Those familiar with the case of the Republic of Italy vs. Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito know that it has been the catalyst for a continuous war of words in cyberspace for nearly six years.  An online pro-innocence community of the defendants’ supporters goes to battle daily with an online pro-guilt community of the defendants’ detractors.  Claims are made, debates ensue, criticisms and insults are exchanged.  Dozens, if not hundreds, of seasoned commentators participate, leaving a trail of by now millions of written posts, both lengthy and brief, in the forums of the various media coverage and websites about the case.

One of the complaints most commonly expressed by the pro-guilt community is the allegation that the pro-innocence community consists of little more than a public relations campaign — often called the “PR Supertanker,” because of its presumed size and influence in the mass media.  The pro-guilt community frequently accuses pro-innocence commentators of being paid for the writing they do for the case, although no support for that claim has ever been produced.  This accusation is intended to suggest that pro-innocence supporters don’t really believe in what they write, they are just doing a job, and that job, for some reason, is to produce propaganda.

(Pro-innocence writers often joke about how wealthy they would be if they actually were paid for their online posts about the case, especially if they were paid by the word.  It is not uncommon to see posters with a few thousand comments under their belts over the course of a couple of years.)

Amanda Knox’s parents, Curt Knox and Edda Mellas, have been open about the fact they hired a public relations agency within a week of their daughter’s arrest for murder in Perugia, Italy in 2007.  David Marriott of Seattle’s Gogerty-Marriott firm became the publicist for Amanda and her family, responding to media requests, arranging press interviews for Amanda’s parents, and generally working to counter the other PR campaign already in full swing – the one in the European tabloid press, vilifying Amanda and Raffaele by presuming guilt and describing the defendants in lurid, sensationalistic terms.  That negative campaign, often suspected of being fed by the Italian prosecutors of the case, had a head start of at least a year before bits of positive information about the defendants began to trickle into the international mass media.

Meanwhile, in parallel with the official, paid campaign, a grassroots community of people who had not known each other before the case, and who did not know Amanda Knox’s family or David Marriott, began coming together on the internet, eventually forming a large group now loosely called “the supporters.”

Judging from how often the ”supertanker” accusation is leveled against the supporters, it is clear the pro-guilt community feels a great deal of resentment about the issue. As the current appeal trial of the legal case continues in Florence, pro-guilt criticisms remain steady and new anti-PR articles still pop up online.  The problem is that pro-guilt resentment is based primarily on false assumptions and faulty logic.

The overriding error of logic in pro-guilt complaints about the PR campaign is the apparent fear that pro-innocence media reports will influence the opinions of the judges who decide on the guilt or innocence of the defendants (Italian trials are decided by a panel of professional and lay judges, as opposed to a jury).  The error in this logic is that it contradicts a basic tenet of the argument for guilt, which is that Italian judges are inherently impartial, unbiased and incorruptible.  What is there to fear about exposing the judges to pro-innocence public relations when their job is to pay attention exclusively to the evidence in the courtroom?

In the meantime, the supporters fervently hope that pro-innocence PR will influence opinions in the courtroom.  Judges in Italy are not prohibited from consuming media coverage of cases they work on, and negative coverage certainly seems to have influenced the decisions of the judges in the first trial, who found the defendants guilty based more on much-publicized “odd” behavior than on evidence.

The pro-guilt community cannot logically have it both ways – either the judges are influenced by media coverage or they are not.  If they are influenced by media coverage, then they are not impartial.  If they are not influenced by media coverage, then who cares about a PR campaign?

The pro-guilt community’s concerns about the PR campaign, admittedly, seem to extend beyond the decisions of the judges at trial.  It bothers them that any media consumer is exposed to pro-innocence coverage, because, they claim, the coverage is unbalanced.  Implicit in this claim, though, are two false assumptions – first, that PR campaigns are always effective, and second, that people are stupid.

Obviously, PR campaigns are not always successful.  If the product being sold is not palatable, people won’t buy it.  Think of the multi-millions of dollars that went into trying to get Mitt Romney elected in the last U.S. presidential race – thousands of times more than what has been spent in the pro-innocence campaign. The “product” was much more slickly packaged, and there is no doubt the “coverage” was unbalanced.  Nevertheless, as with the New Coke, the majority of consumers gave Romney the thumbs-down.  In the modern world, people with electronic access to almost infinite sources of information can check any facts or “propaganda” they doubt.

This is why it is not safe to assume people are easily fooled by a media campaign, even if such a campaign were unbalanced or not wholly truthful.  Anyone who is interested in this particular legal case, for example, can find hundreds of sources to explore online, including the pro-guilt community’s own websites, which offer courtroom transcripts and judges’ decisions translated from Italian to English by members of the pro-guilt community themselves.   Overall, no information is withheld or hidden from anyone interested in determining the facts.supertanker 2

Ultimately, the pro-guilt community’s specific objections to the PR campaign are not entirely clear.  Their attitude seems to be that a pro-innocence supertanker is somehow unfair, harmful, or just too big.  Maybe they worry that media consumers in general are too easily persuaded by publicity and unlikely to care about the facts behind the headlines.

If this is what they believe, then it would be strategic for them to strengthen their forces and fight back in the media to the best of their ability.  The solution for them is to build their own PR supertanker, and then see if they can get anybody to climb aboard.