HBO’s acclaimed documentary series “The Jinx,” about accused murderer Robert Durst, is a case study not only for legal eagles and law enforcement types, but also PR people. It’s a master class in what not to do in interviews.
Durst makes several costly PR miscalculations in his dealings with documentarians. Here’s what you can learn from his mistakes:
1. Avoid excessive hubris. Durst seems to think he can talk his way out of anything. When he was on trial for murdering his neighbor in Texas, he testified on his own behalf, helping earn an acquittal. Durst thinks he can outsmart the filmmakers, too, until it eventually backfires. If you’ve been in PR very long, you’ve probably had clients like this. Their arrogance isn’t likely to get them arrested for murder. However, unless they learn to respect the power of the press, they’re headed for trouble, too.
2. Don’t ignore the advice of counsel. For PR people, the legal department can be a necessary evil at best and a hindrance at worst. Let’s face it, though: Someone has to protect us from ourselves. Like many PR people, Durst falls in love with the idea of getting out “his side of the story.” Durst’s attorneys reluctantly agree to a first interview with filmmakers. He pursues a second without their support. That second interview is a disaster.
“Jinx” Director Robert Jarecki told ABC News, “[His lawyer] listed a whole bunch of things about what we weren’t going to be able to talk about, and Bob interrupted him and said, ‘I don’t care if he puts it in a billboard in Times Square, let him do what he wants.'” Let that be a lesson to PR people. Listen to your lawyers.
3. Don’t develop a personal relationship with the interviewer. In “The Jinx,” it’s clear the film’s director and its subject have formed a personal relationship. They like each other. Maybe Durst thinks Jarecki won’t burn him for that reason. Jarecki does express some reservations before pursuing the final “gotcha” interview, but the reservations don’t stop him. The takeaway is that reporters might be really nice people, but they’ve got a job to do. And that job might negatively impact you or your client.
4. Remember that the microphone is always live. Despite being an obvious one, we’ve seen this mistake made over and over, all the way up to U.S. presidents of both parties, but rarely with such dire consequences as those faced by Durst. During an early interview with Jarecki, Durst rehearses his interview answers during a break. The mic picks them all up. It’s not flattering, but it’s not the end of the world either.
The problem is Durst doesn’t learn from his mistake. In a dramatic final interview with Jarecki, he excuses himself to go to the bathroom … once again still wearing the microphone. He’s just been ambushed with damning evidence. He’s distraught. In the bathroom alone, he mutters to himself. First, he says, “There it is. You’re caught.” Later, he says what has been characterized as a confession, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
During that fateful utterance, Durst says one other curious thing: “He was right. I was wrong.” It’s unclear who Durst is talking about. However, given the nature of the interview, I’d like to think he was referring to his lawyer, or maybe his PR person.
Doug Bennett Jr. is public relations director at Anthem Inc.