As Bishop Eddie Long faces sexual coercion charges from four former church congregants, he must make his case both in court and to the public at large to preserve his reputation, public relations and crisis management, experts said.
As Long, head of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, seeks to protect his multi-national religious empire, he and his attorneys will have to balance their desire to fight the charges exclusively in court while responding to what at least two plaintiffs and other leaders have said since the charges became public.
As of press time, Long had spoken publicly about the charges only once before his congregation on Sept. 26. He didn’t speak directly to the charges or his guilt or innocence but vowed to vigorously fight the plaintiffs in court. The four former congregants – all men – claim Long, over several years, lured them into sexual relationships with money, gifts and lavish trips across the country and the globe.
Long also released a statement through his attorney, calling the accusations false.
Stephen Brown, senior vice president at MS&L, a public relations firm in Atlanta, said he thinks Long may have waited too long to address the public.
“There are a lot of questions that the American public has, and the American public is already creating its own narrative of this story,” he said.
After the first address to his congregation, Long also held a press conference with local and national media members but declined to answer questions on the advice of his attorney, Craig Gillen. Gillen has repeatedly said he plans to fight the allegations in court. But a better approach, Brown said, would have been to take questions and perhaps decline to answer specific questions while answering others. That way, Long would appear less resistant, he said.
“The idea about completely keeping his voice out of the media discussion would give you a clean slate going into a litigation situation. It’s probably the most conservative approach when it comes to risk,” Brown said. “But it’s possible to do an interview and still not answer every question.”
All four plaintiffs are represented by B.J. Bernstein, an Atlanta defense attorney. Two plaintiffs – Spencer LeGrande and Jamaal Harris – have already given interviews to local TV news, and Bernstein released photos Long allegedly sent to one of the plaintiffs that showed him wearing tight spandex workout clothing while he stood in a bathroom. Long hasn’t addressed the photos either, and perhaps he should, Brown said.
“It seems like if there were an easy explanation for that, it would be explained very quickly,” he said. “Instead, it brings up all sorts of questions. It’s like one of those create-your-own-caption moments for the American public on the blogosphere.”
Long is likely following the advice of his attorneys, but attorneys don’t often consider the public because public perception and reaction can be difficult to control, said Jeff Dickerson, an Atlanta communications specialist. A good public relations strategy should consider the courthouse and the courtyard.
“They are very, very different and lawyers don’t acknowledge the difference. The rules of engagement are so different. In a court of law there is a constitutional presumption of innocence,” Dickerson said. “In the court of public opinion there’s no such thing.”
Long, his attorney and whoever may be crafting his responses can get together and figure what he can and cannot say before he responds, Dickerson said.
“I always tell (clients) that ‘no comment’ is a comment and is often construed by the public as a negative comment and a passive admission of guilt,” he said.
The church also must continue to operate and do good work, said Lee Echols, president of Atlanta’s Echols Group, a public relations firm. Echols said he agreed with Long’s decision to first speak from the church pulpit.
“That was the logical venue and certainly the most receptive audience for his comments,” Echols said. “He does have to be very careful in what he says and how he says it and to whom he says it because what he is facing are very sensitive, serious charges. … The damage has been done by the accusations having been put forward. Many people question whether he was strong enough in his denial. I’m quite sure his legal team is advising him to say less and not more.”
But at the end of the day, Long’s fate and, perhaps, the church’s as well, may depend on whether the charges are true. Long could benefit from leading a large religious organization, Brown said.
“Religious institutions have a lot of strong tenets about faith and about forgiveness. There’s a lot of faith in each other and there’s a lot of faith in the mission of the church,” he said. “I would still urge that he get his story out publicly in a way that’s just not in the court, but it doesn’t seem like that’s the advice that’s being heeded.”