Television news cameras captured him arriving outside a high-end Manhattan hotel, then being greeted warmly by a group of male friends, lounging outside and smoking cigars during an unusually warm Friday afternoon earlier this month.
The imagery was of an individual under criminal investigation unconcerned about what was going on in a court proceeding that could ultimately impact his liberty.
Also, given the appearances and body language of his friends, there was widespread commentary on social media, including a video clip that went viral with the images of Cohen and his friends accompanied by the theme from the television show The Sopranos.
Intentional or not, the media coverage of the gathering cemented an image in the court of public opinion that may not be beneficial to Cohen in an actual court.
Obviously, the Cohen case and the ongoing special counsel investigation in the United States are attracting an intense level of media scrutiny.
But no matter what the level of public interest, it is essential to know how to interact with the media and protect your client’s image, say lawyers experienced in dealing with the press.
“With clients, one of the most important aspects is to prepare them for what they are going to walk into,” says Jill Makepeace, a lawyer at Greenspan Humphrey Weinstein in Toronto.
“If we can expect media to be present, what we don’t want is to be caught off guard,” she states.
Tracey Tremayne-Lloyd, who has acted in many high-profile disciplinary proceedings, agrees that the client must be fully aware of the aspects of the process that are separate from the evidence a regulator intends to present.
“I always advise the client before a disciplinary hearing and I repeat it several times: ‘This is open to the public.’ As well, if the press are there, they will likely have camera people, standing right outside,” says Tremayne-Lloyd, who heads TTL Health Law in Toronto.
The primary focus is the case before the disciplinary panel. But for regulated professionals, the optics outside of the hearing also matter and they say lawyers must do their best to ensure their client is presented in the best light possible.
That begins with how a client enters the building where a hearing is taking place.
“We might even go to the media in advance and ask, ‘Where do you want us?’ Otherwise, they are going to get a photo anyway,” Makepeace explains.
The goal, she adds, is to ensure that any photos of a client are “dignified” and do not suggest that they are trying to hide from the media.
A client should also be instructed on what to do if caught by surprise by the media, in a parking lot near the location of a hearing, for example.
“Do not give a comment. But do not run away. You can provide them with your lawyer’s card,” says Makepeace.
If the media is taking the so-called “walking shot” as a client is entering or leaving a hearing, Tremayne-Lloyd says, her instructions are clear.
“Do not give a statement. But never duck your head. Don’t hang your head. Look them in the eye. Do not get involved in an altercation,” she states.
The lawyer also has a role to play in this interaction with the media, says Makepeace, because family members of the client may not want to be photographed.
“We often accompany them into the proceeding so they are not on their own. The lawyer is also there to deal with requests [from the media],” she says.
While both lawyers agree that it is a mistake to try to prevent the media from photographing a client, the amount of time they have to do so should be limited. If there are photographers and reporters there at the end of a hearing day, then a vehicle should be waiting outside.
“I tell my client to have a family member or I will have a student or associate pull up, so they can get into the vehicle immediately,” says Tremayne-Lloyd.
“You don’t want the media following as they walk to a parking lot a couple [of] blocks away,” she explains.
In addition to photographing a client, reporters will likely be asking questions both of the professional facing the disciplinary proceeding and the lawyer.
Tremayne-Lloyd stresses to her clients that they should not speak to the media.
“Sometimes, they are harder to persuade not to talk. They are more adamant about their innocence,” she says.
While a lawyer should not speak to the specifics of the case against a client, it does not necessarily mean that there cannot be some form of response to the media.
Tremayne-Lloyd says it depends on the facts of a case as to whether she will provide a quote for the media.
“Only if it is strategically appropriate,” she says. “Sometimes, you do not want to say anything.”
According to Makepeace, it is important for a lawyer “to turn their minds to what the parameters are” in terms of what is appropriate to say to the media.
“The worst thing is simply to say ‘no comment,’” she says.
The two lawyers also agree that answering factual questions from reporters covering a hearing, not for a quote but to ensure their stories are accurate, is appropriate and beneficial for the client.
“If you are effectively repeating what has been said in open court or at a public hearing, then it is appropriate,” Makepeace suggests.
“If your comment goes beyond that, there could be problems. You have to be careful, but it can be an opportunity to educate the reporter.”
She adds that it is worthwhile for the lawyer to monitor media coverage of a hearing in the event there is a significant factual error in a story or a report.
Tremayne-Lloyd says interaction with media outside a proceeding is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is important to be cautious and respond to any questions as succinctly as possible.
As well, having some knowledge of the previous work of a reporter or columnist who is at a hearing, especially if the person works for a major media outlet, is also a good idea, she says.
“There are some who have a particular bent, which is particularly true when it comes to the medical profession. With these reporters, the less said, the better,” she notes.