Nina Pham: A Case Study in Media Manipulation

Please understand that I am not commenting here on the merits of Ebola survivor Nina Pham’s lawsuit against Texas Health Resources. She says she has nightmares and her hair is falling out. She says Presby used a video of her without her consent. Maybe she’s entitled to some money. And maybe, as she has said, she really does want to “make hospitals and big corporations realize that nurses and health care workers, especially frontline people, are important.”

No, what I want to talk about is Charla Aldous, the lawyer representing Pham. Because Aldous has pretty much posterized Texas Health, and right now she’s hanging on the rim, looking down at Texas Health, enjoying the afterglow of her monster dunk. If I’m reading her playbook correctly — and I’d like to think I am — here’s how she did it:

Step 1: Get your line in the water. (Sorry, I know. I started with a basketball metaphor, and now I’ve switched to fishing.) In October, the Observer posted an item titled “Local Attorneys Gearing Up For Ebola Lawsuits.” Sounds like it’s a story about a bunch of Dallas lawyers getting ready to file lawsuits, right? No, turns out the only two people quoted in the story are Aldous and her law partner. Says Aldous of her potential clients: “I have been contacted, but cannot disclose the names. I have not yet been formally retained.” Translation: “I’m open for business!”

Step 2: Keep working it. Aldous posted the entire Observer story on her website. If I had a time machine, I bet I could travel back to October and show you that if I googled “Dallas lawyer Ebola,” Aldous would have been the top result.

Step 3: Use the dog. Sunday, the day before Pham filed suit, Aldous got the story on the front page of the Morning News. The online version included no fewer than three pictures of Pham and her now famous dog, Bentley. And it included a picture of a tough-looking Aldous, her arms folded. I mean, how many times do you see a front-page story about a lawsuit that is about to be filed? The News reporter, Jennifer Emily, essentially wrote the best press release ever.

Step 4: Keep working it some more. The day the story published, Sunday, the News’ PR company, HCK2 Partners, sent out a release about the “exclusive” story, offering Emily for interviews. In part, the release said, “Jennifer Emily is available for interviews to discuss the pending lawsuit and her meeting with Pham.” Emily’s story mentioned that she met with Pham for 90 minutes. She wrote about 3,000 words. I wondered what else Emily had to say that she wasn’t able to get into print. You see how brilliant Aldous is, right? Not only did she get the story placed, but she got the reporter to do her work for her, fielding follow-up questions from other media outlets about the lawsuit.

Step 5: Spike the ball, do Butch Johnson’s California Quake end zone dance. (Yes, I know. Now I’m on to a third sport.) Yesterday the suit was filed. Today brings us another story in the paper. Online headline: “Ebola Nurse Relieved, Sad After Filing Suit Against Owner of Dallas Hospital.” Aldous probably would have preferred: “Ebola Nurse Relieved, Sad; Dog Remains Hopeful After Filing Suit Against Evil Owner of Dallas Hospital.” But she’ll probably take it. The story does cite a legal expert who says that Texas Health will likely settle the suit without going to court. Oh, you think so, doctor? Dang straight they’ll settle. They’ve seen enough of Charla Aldous’ work to know that they don’t want to see any more.