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Amanda Knox: A New Case Study in PR and the Court of Public Opinion

Amanda Knox is on a plane headed home to the U.S. after four long years in a central Italian prison. This morning, on the news, Knox’s mother said her daughter was looking forward to coming home quietly, and would be overwhelmed by any media frenzy upon her arrival. But at the end of the day, it was the media that probably saved her from a life behind bars.

As anyone who reads or watches the news is aware, the Seattle student and her former Italian boyfriend were just acquitted in the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in 2007. Their arrest launched an OJ-Simpson-style trial by public opinion, unprecedented in Italy, and fueled primarily by media manipulation and leverage.

The case was irresistible to the media. A young, attractive and affluent American girl studies abroad. She discovers the bar and drug scene there, gets a cute boyfriend. Her roommate is suddenly and violently killed in what appeared to be an erotic game turned violent. Whatever the facts were, and we may never really know, the intersection of the good girl/bad girl story, sex, and murder sells papers, translates into ratings, and breeds online buzz. No one but the defendants and the victim’s family had any stake in the outcome, but from Florentine cafes to Starbucks in Seattle, everyone seemed to have an opinion, and it was usually about Amanda Knox’s character.

From the beginning, both sides knew that the nature of this story demanded strategic public and media relations. Unlike most high-profile cases that draw this level of attention, the players were not celebrities, politicians, or executives. However, they had to fight with high-caliber weapons in order to leverage coverage and opinion in their favor. Early in the case, the prosecution and police leaked information to the media to paint a titillating and very unfavorable picture of Knox and her personal behavior. This would help them build a public case against a very charismatic foreign woman who could slip through the cracks and walk free. On the other side, the Knox family, fighting a foreign justice system and media, used their resources to retain a well-known Seattle PR agency, Gogerty-Marriott. The tactics worked. In fact, the Italian media became so polarized that that reporters covering the case were dubbed the “innocentisti” or “colpevolisti” based on whether they believed Knox was innocent or guilty.

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After they brought the PR agency on board, the Knox family and their prominent supporters became highly visible on morning talk shows and news programs, regaling the media with tales of the gentle, innocent Amanda they know, a frightened girl fighting a hostile legal system. Websites like Friends of Amanda and Amanda Knox Defense were also created and publicized to support Knox. Just before the verdict was issued, Knox’s father told reporters that the jury should ignore the media and focus on the facts, but also argued prosecutors had used the media to their advantage early in the trial. Meanwhile, the victim’s brother said the family had not wanted to speak publicly, but felt compelled to do so because of Knox’s “PR machine.” The Kercher’s lawyer also proclaimed, “They have done a huge public relations campaign to free her that has created a fog around the trial.”

The four year trial process and PR war between the Italian prosecution and the “friends of Amanda,” culminated on Monday in a courtroom scene where lawyers accused Knox of being a “she-devil” served by a $1  million dollar publicity campaign, jurors openly wept, and protestors hissed outside among throngs of international reporters. Bolstered by a capable defense team and perhaps an even stronger army of publicists, Knox walked free. The verdict will be challenged and the coming week will bring even more media analysis. How well did this PR strategy work in a legal battle? Watch the news, the tabloids, entertainment news, exclusive interviews, and read Amanda’s multimillion-dollar memoir to find out.

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