PR Is Key for Kobe Bryant

In a case like the one Kobe Bryant is facing, legal strategy and public relations strategy are essentially one and the same.

"There's really no separation in a case like this where there's a tremendous amount of public knowledge of an accused before the case starts, and a lot of public interest," said Bill Moffitt, a defense attorney.

Bryant made his first court appearance Wednesday in Eagle, Colo., on a sexual assault charge. He is accused of raping a 19-year-old woman on June 30. Bryant, who is married and has a baby daughter, says he committed adultery with the woman but insists the sex was consensual.

Standing quietly between his attorneys, the NBA superstar only spoke once during the seven-minute hearing. When the judge asked if he objected to giving up his right to have the preliminary hearing held within 30 days, he answered, "No sir." The preliminary hearing was set for Oct. 9.

Is Silence Golden?

Bryant was met by cheers from a group of supporters as he entered and left the courthouse, but defense attorneys say Bryant's public relations track record is mixed.

On July 18, hours after a Colorado prosecutor said he was charging Bryant with one count of felony sexual assault, the NBA All-Star held a news conference in which he declared his innocence.

Choking back tears, and in a quivering voice, he praised his wife, Vanessa, who appeared at the news conference with him. "I'm innocent," he said. "I sit here in front of you guys furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making a mistake of adultery."

That makes sense, the attorneys say, but Bryant's appearance earlier this week in front of paparazzi at a teen awards show may not.

On Monday, Bryant appeared at the 2003 Teen Choice Awards, in Universal City, Calif., where he was picked as the favorite male athlete. Accepting the award, he paraphrased Martin Luther King Jr., saying, "An injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere."

"Kobe Bryant is an athlete, he's a sports figure. He's not a civil rights person. And I'm not sure that that's the way I would have marketed him in that instance," Moffitt said.

Defense attorney John Burris thinks Bryant should do his best to avoid the media for now.

"It's better for the star to take a low profile during the period," Burris said. "They don't have to retire to a cave, but at the same they should reduce their stature to the point where they appear to be leading an ordinary existence."

Widespread Audience

As a celebrity in legal jeopardy, Bryant has to play not only to the jury pool in Colorado, but also to a national jury — the millions of viewers, readers and Internet surfers who will draw their own conclusions about his guilt or innocence.

Bryant's case has dominated newspapers and newscasts from one end of the nation to the other. But some say the constant courtroom color commentary trivializes the process.

"It demeans the reality of the situation, which is either that a teenage girl was raped, or a well-respected athlete has been falsely accused. And either of those is really a tragic situation," said Ann Woolner, legal affairs columnist for Bloomberg News.

But media saturation is an unalterable reality, and in this environment, every public move made by a defendant like Bryant can affect the eventual verdict.