The trial's over, but the image work remains

Despite acquittal, legal cases such as Michael Jackson's can leave lingering damage in public opinion.

Exonerated by 12 jurors in a California courtroom, pop star Michael Jackson now begins to face another challenge: exonerating himself in the court of worldwide opinion.

Although the jury found Mr. Jackson "not guilty" on 10 counts - including child molestation and serving intoxicating beverages to minors - a public trial on such charges can leave a lingering, and arguably unfair, taint on any defendant's reputation.

For Mr. Jackson, no ordinary public figure, the challenge is magnified.

As a pop-culture icon, he has long pushed the boundaries of behavior and style - literally into the realm of Neverland. The recent three-month courtroom drama cemented that eccentric image, and split the public into camps of defenders and detractors.

But if the trial helped solidify public opinion, image issues still linger for Jackson. Topping the list are Mr. Jackson's public statements - made in a BBC documentary about his life - that he sees it as acceptable for a 46-year-old man to share his bed with children.

"In this case, you have a wide public questioning the values and morals of the accused, not necessarily because of the court case, but because of his own public comments and behavior, which they feel might lend credence to his accusers," says Robert Pugsley, a professor of law at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles.

Steps Jackson can take

Image consultants and others say there are steps Jackson can take to improve his public image - moves that could also help him dig out from deep financial debts. During the trial, a forensic accountant testified that Jackson is spending as much as $30 million more per year than he earns.

"Pop artists are allowed more latitude than anyone else as a kind of counterculture expectation to become as weird as they can," says Alyce Parsons, an image consultant in the San Francisco Bay area. "Now [Jackson] needs to behave with so much integrity that there is no shadow of suspicion about who he is."

Such a change requires more than an image makeover, say others who have built track records rehabilitating politicians, government officials, and celebrities who have fallen from grace in public. The transformation includes real behavioral change that includes the building blocks of truthfulness, humility, accountability, transparency, and consistency.

"In this country, when you've gone through the courts as Michael has, we honor and acknowledge that; but at the same time, the police and media are going to be watching as carefully as ever," says Mike Paul, president of the public-relations firm MGP & Associates in New York. "If he still goes on having these relationships with young boys, we will all know about it and he will be in trouble again."

He agrees with jury foreman Paul Rodriguez, who told reporters after the trial: "We were very troubled that Michael Jackson allowed young men into his bedroom. We would hope that he doesn't sleep with children anymore and that they have to stay in guest rooms and houses [if they visit his Neverland Ranch]. He has to be very careful how he conducts himself around children."

Such comments, observers say, show that even after being exonerated in court, the responsibility is on Jackson to close the gap in public perception.

Actions under way

Such an image-refurbishing effort appears to have already begun.

The singer's lawyer said Tuesday that the singer will no longer open himself to suspicion by sharing his bed with young boys. "He's not going to do that anymore," attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. said on the NBC show Today. "He's not going to make himself vulnerable to this anymore."

Some analysts believe his name is permanently tarnished, while others say a professional comeback is possible.

"Michael Jackson has been stripped literally and figuratively of all dignity," says Marian Salzman, director of strategic content JWT, a New York ad agency. "The famous Jackson brand name has lost."

But plenty of other consultants say Michael can stage a comeback. Their advice: Go back to doing what you do best, music, dance, choreography, video production. Go on tour. Give money to causes. Be seen working regularly again, spending time with family and spending regular time in public.

"Put out a new music album, create new dance moves, go on tour or star in Vegas," says Mr. Paul. "Let the public see a new Michael at work, spending time with family and friends who are not young boys. Tell the world you have learned serious lessons and move on to more positive pursuits. But if you keep spinning the truth and stay in Neverland with more kids, that is a big mistake."

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