Last week I compared the litigation websites Viacom and Google have used during their legal tussle. Litigation websites have become a key weapon in the litigation communications arsenal. Some of the traditional communication tactics, such as interviews and op-eds, involve uncontrolled media and thus are subject to the vagaries inherent in using such media. Litigation websites, however, provide the individual or company on trial with a method of reaching stakeholders directly, with unfiltered, controlled messages.
Having established herself as a trend setter in many areas, it should come as no surprise that Martha Stewart was the first person to use a personal website as a tactic in litigation communications. The day after the Justice Department filed criminal charges against her for securities fraud and lying to investigators, she launched "Martha Talks" at www.marthatalks.com, a personal website on which Stewart posted an open letter "to her friends and loyal supporters," a legal segment on the facts of the case titled "Setting the Record Straight," and links to various press articles, editorials, and consumer letters that had been supportive of her during the ImClone scandal. In the site's first day, more than 2 million hits were logged and more than 20,000 visitors took the time to send messages of "support and encouragement." In assessing the website's impact, Global PR Blog Week commented:
"Martha Talks proved the effectiveness of the Web in crisis communications. ... Martha Talks tells Stewart's side of the story. It generates support and presents her as a normal person, not the uber-perfect home heroine her shows and the media make her out to be. The site is humble, subtle and presented in a way that communicates, while Stewart maintains her innocence, that she realizes the serious nature of her legal issues. Timely trial updates, statements from Stewart's legal team and a library of different op-eds written on her behalf populate the site. It's become a news source, getting Stewart's point across without her having to field interviews."As one would expect, Martha Stewart started a trend. On March 19, 2003, the Securities and Exchange Commission sued Richard Scrushy and the company he founded, HealthSouth Corporation, for "massive accounting fraud." Seven months later, on October 28,2003, Scrushy launched www.richardmscrushy.com, which included the following statement from his attorney:
“This website fulfills two immediate needs: First, people have been asking what Richard’s side of the story is, and second, people have wondered why misinformation has not been corrected. This website gives us a medium to help set the record straight and level the playing field. No longer will the public have to be content with a single, one-sided presentation of the facts filtered through and reflecting the personal prejudices of various news reporters. Those stories will be challenged and corrected.”Michael Jackson, a trend setter in his own right, also became a follower in the use of litigation websites. Four days after his November 20, 2003 arrest on child molestation charges, he launched his website, mjnews.us, called "the official press room" to tell his side of the story. Jackson's website was relaunched on March 1, 2004 as mjjsource.com, and included more entertainment elements as well as more detail than the previous website.