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Amanda Knox: What American parents can learn from her story

Amanda Knox, the hikers in Iran, the journalists in North Korea – all cases where young Americans were caught up in a foreign legal system. Some points on how to handle such a crisis.

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Public relations specialists and communications academics say that handling media is crucial from the beginning.

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“Creating a consistent, believable narrative is very important, and even more important is to understand the possible motives of the host country in not losing face before their own people and in the international community,” says Maurice Hall, chair of the communications department at Villanova University.

He says the parents of Amanda Knox were very skillful in understanding multiple audiences, he says, including the parents of the murder victim and the Italian authorities, who are judged by their own population.

In the cases of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee and hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both the North Korean and Iranian governments were marginalized and were trying to score points against the US, Professor Hall says.

“Understanding what messages these countries might want to be sending to the US or the international community was very important in understanding the undercurrents behind what was going on publicly,” he says.

In the case of Ling and Lee, their public contrition helped make it easier for Korean leader Kim Jong Il to free them and appear merciful in the eyes of others, he says. Likewise, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s confiding in NBC journalist Ann Curry that he was about to grant clemency “as an act of mercy” showed his need to appear kind, forgiving and generous, outside the formal channels of diplomacy.

Hall’s advice: seek out country and culture specialists from local universities or schools. “You do need people who understand these cultures to really understand what is behind what is happening,” he says. “This can be very difficult at the height of a crisis.”

Most agree that there are probably hundreds of cases that never reach the attention of the greater public because parents and friends didn’t know how to engage journalists.

Derede McAlpin, Vice President of Levick Strategic Communications, an international consulting firm, says all parents should keep in mind that most news outlets don’t have the resources to cover every case presented to them. What kept the Knox case alive, she and others say, was that a support group formed which created email and letter-writing campaigns as well as raised money to help pay for the defense.

Understanding foreign media is also important. The Italian tabloid press had a field day sensationalizing every detail of the Knox trial. “In this case, the facts leading to the Amanda Knox conviction … increased the likelihood of media interest,” says McAlpin.

“She was also an attractive all-American student that fell victim to unreliable DNA evidence making its way into her trial,” she says. “The issue of unreliable evidence entering a case is not uncommon – it happens in the US all of the time.”

The Amanda Knox case is an exception, she says.

“Most defendants don’t get a do-over when faced with a conviction whether the evidence in the case is reliable or not. It’s best to make sure your children are aware that the US Constitution is not relevant when you leave the US. Know your rights before going abroad.”

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