With the launch of Twitter and Facebook accounts and a website, Mark O’Mara, the attorney for George Zimmerman, has unveiled a risky communications strategy to influence public perception in the Trayvon Martin case, social media experts say.
“One of the biggest challenges of social media is that it really can’t be ‘managed,’” Glen Gilmore, and attorney and social media expert named one of Forbes Top 10 Media Influencers, told HLN Monday. “A room full of lawyers or PR consultants can quickly find themselves outmaneuvered by a kid who knows how to create and share content that’s viral,” he said.
In a hearing last week in which a gag order was denied in the case, O’Mara indicated that he would soon take an active role in controlling Zimmerman’s message in the case.
"I am concerned there is extraordinary amount of discussion by other people, including handlers for certain other parties in the case, and it is difficult, because we don't have a lot of control. We cannot deny this case is the most significant media event in the country and world. So we cannot stand mute about those matters outside the courtroom that need to be addressed," said O’Mara.
Read more: Attorney starts website to help Zimmerman
O’Mara updated his website recently to elaborate on several topics in the case, including the legal defense fund, “discouraging speculation” and “providing a voice for Mr. Zimmerman.” While the move was expected in the face of considerable media coverage in the case, experts see a decided tug of war being played out via social media in an effort to influence the public online.
“Although Mr. Zimmerman's lawyers have taken pains to include a disclaimer that, 'We cannot and will not comment about the facts of the case, as that is the purpose of the courts and legal process,’ they go on to provide a lengthy explanation of why they haven't released their witness list yet, plainly playing to public emotions by citing a concern for witness safety," Gilmore said. "It also includes a very quaint picture of a modest home that strikes a much better pose than most of the photos of the defendant.”
But others point out that the Martin family has benefited from immense social traction online, especially from celebrities who have trumpeted the case of the unarmed teenager.
Marcus Messner, assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Mass Communications and an expert on social media, told HLN Monday that O’Mara’s online strategy, although belated in comparison to that generated by the Martin family, is a smart one.
“In many people’s views, George Zimmerman is guilty, even without a trial. This of course has to do with the circumstances of this case, but also with his side’s communication strategy so far. It’s common practice for lawyers to make public statements in defense of their clients,” Messner said. “Moving them now to social media is a sign of the times. It allows the legal team to present its views without media filters. What has to be seen is how much public support they can gather through social media.”
Zimmerman, 28, faces a second-degree murder charge in the shooting death of 17-year-old Martin. He has pleaded not guilty.
Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, opened a Twitter account over the weekend, joining the teen’s mother on the micro-blogging site.
Impact of the social media in courtroom
The attention focused on the Trayvon Martin case has drawn comparisons to the Casey Anthony case, which has been called the “social media trial of the century.”
“I believe the Zimmerman case is already bigger in its scope on social media. Countless people have used Trayvon’s image as their profile photo on Facebook or Twitter to make a stand in this case and to force an investigation,” Messner said. “This public pressure has without a doubt helped to move this case forward. What’s important to remember, however, is that the ultimate ruling on this case will most likely happen in a court room. And despite the public outrage over the Casey Anthony case on social media, she walked free in the end due to a lack of evidence.”
On Monday, Gilmore said the case may rewrite the book on social media in high-profile cases.
"(Zimmerman's) attorneys also make no bones about the fact that they're planning to use the Facebook account to bolster Zimmerman's defense fund. You can count on this becoming common practice in high-profile cases involving a defendant from modest means," Gilmore said. "Because of the power of social media to raise money, high-powered lawyers may be more willing to accept cases involving less affluent clients if they believe that social media will help pay their bills."