The public relations fiasco involving US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s husband’s tweets bring to mind a story about William F. Weld, who served as US attorney in the 1980s before going on to become Massachusetts governor in the early 1990s. Years later, in recalling his media policy as the federal government’s top law enforcement official in Massachusetts, Weld, tongue-in-cheek, would proclaim in a stentorian tone: “We do not comment on grand jury investigations.”
Then he’d add in a stage whisper: “Unless we want to.”
Kidding aside, Weld knew, as most top-level law enforcement officials do, that there are ways to get a story out, even with the restrictions placed on a prosecutor’s ability to make public statements.
The problem for Ortiz is not that her side of the story got out. Getting accused of pushing someone to suicide because of an overzealous prosecution is not something that can go unanswered.
Her problem is that the tweets by Ortiz’s husband, Tom Dolan, violated a basic rule of public life: Citizens can take shots at you, but you can’t fire back, even if you think they’re unfounded or unfair. When you do, you look like a bully and the fight looks unfair, as indeed it is. Public figures have advantages the typical citizen doesn’t — the ability to command media attention, file public documents that do your talking, rally third-party supporters and generate “leaks.” Most also have media savvy and relationships.
The family of Aaron Swartz had accused Ortiz and her office of driving their son to suicide. In his tweets, Dolan allowed his understandable defense of his wife to devolve into an attack on the Swartz family, just days after his death.
Wednesday night, Ortiz corrected two festering public relations problems: She defended her office’s handling of the case and she expressed her sympathy for Swartz’s family, which had been a glaring omission from her office’s initial statement.
But she still has a lingering public relations problem: She or her husband need to apologize for his attack on a heartbroken, grieving family at a time when they could be forgiven for saying just about anything.
Unless they do, the legacy of the story will be that unseemly tweets.
Raymond P. Howell, who served as press secretary to former Governor William F. Weld, is the president of Howell Communications.