by Matt Barkett

October 15, 2015

When I saw the headline about the aunt who sued her nephew because he broke her arm in a freak accident, I wondered how that lawsuit made any sense from a publicity perspective. Surely she talked about it with her lawyers in advance and realized the possibility that if picked up by media, a story like that would portray her in a very bad light.

In our current media environment, which operates on instant access, shotgun-fast reactions and opinions, thinking through in advance how something can become viral and have real consequences in the aftermath is incredibly important. And sure enough, we now have #worstauntever as evidence this lawsuit – and the quick defeat at a jury trial – may not have been the best idea.

Initially, #worstauntever Jennifer Connell did not attempt to defend her actions to media – social or otherwise – who actively castigated her for a seemingly frivolous and downright mean action against her nephew. Then, the Today Show won the exclusive interview sweepstakes when she (and presumably her lawyers who lost the case) decided to try to make the story about a denied insurance claim which left Connell without recourse except, somehow, to sue the kid to make the insurance company pay – however that would work.

So there she and her nephew sat on the Today Show couch, trying to restore her reputation. She came across as reasonably sympathetic, and the family seemed genuine in their love for each other, as Connell haltingly sought to explain how Connecticut law would not allow them to name an insurance company in the lawsuit. Savannah Guthrie pressed Connell to explain the legal nuances, which seemed important to the story. But her lawyers were nowhere to be found, leaving her to try to explain it on her own and she simply couldn’t do it credibly.

Again, I asked myself, how does this appearance make any sense from a publicity perspective if the lawyers who set the failed strategy in the first place aren’t going to be available to answer questions? Connell’s job in that instance was to explain how she didn’t intend to blame the child but was forced to by the law, and then the lawyers needed to take over from there to explain why.

And where were Guthrie’s questions for the insurance company that denied the claim? They weren’t even named in the story, much less asked to explain their reason for denial. It was totally predictable that the media would focus only on the emotion of this story, and whoever was setting the PR strategy to clean up the mess the lawyers made missed a huge opportunity to bring the insurance company into the public eye and – as they all had claimed they intended in the first place – get them to pay up. Now that opportunity is gone, and we still don’t even know who the insurance company is!

This was a sloppy strategy from the start, fraught with big publicity risk, a questionable legal approach and a weak redirect attempt once a golden platform was provided by widespread social media shaming and NBC’s excitement to give them a podium. A lot more could have been made of it, but instead it became another missed opportunity. And #worstauntever still has to pay her medical bills, as well as her lawyers, if they can make themselves available.