Madison crisis communicator helps family of ‘Slender Man’ attack victim

Madison crisis communicator helps family of ‘Slender Man’ attack victim
An anonymous military veteran gifted his purple heart to the 12-year-old 'Slender Man' victim who was stabbed 19 times by her two friends. Steve Lyons is interviewed by CNN's Brook Baldwin. Watch CNN newscast

This May marks the one-year anniversary of the horrific “Slender Man” attack in which a twelve-year-old Waukesha girl was nearly stabbed to death by two classmates who attempted to kill her in hopes of meeting the web-based fictional character Slender Man.

Both girls currently face attempted murder charges. The tragic story became national and international news, overwhelming the family, which was at the same time trying to protect their daughter’s privacy—and protect themselves from the media frenzy.

To help cope with the attention, Madison public affairs specialist Steve Lyons was hired to coordinate the media response and speak for the family. Lyons spoke for the family in more than a hundred media interviews, including specials on ABC’s 20/20 and Good Morning America, CNN, the BBC and The New York Times. He also helped organize fundraising to help pay medical bills for the now-teenage victim, Payton Leutner, efforts that have so far raised nearly $250,000.

Lyons recently answered a few questions about the case and his work.

How did you become involved in the Slender Man case?
I am a communications and public affairs specialist at Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek S.C., with special expertise in crisis communications. In this case, our law firm was representing the family and a family friend was volunteering to handle the media. When it became overwhelming for her, I was hired to help plan and execute a communication strategy to keep the family’s name and faces out of the public while still ensuring their daughter’s reputation was upheld, even if no one knew her name. It was an enormous amount of work, but it was successful. 

What makes you qualified for this type of work?
As a public affairs specialist, my job is to help clients speak with a stronger voice in the Legislature, the media and in public. I help clients build support for their ideas, defend their reputation, or tell “their story in their voice.” I have a long background in this.

I served as deputy chief of staff to a former governor, assistant deputy secretary for a large agency and chief policy advisor to State Senator Scott Fitzgerald, now the Senate Majority Leader. I also spent a decade in the private sector overseeing the public relations, marketing and government affairs for one of the Wisconsin’s largest state-based health insurance companies.

In the Slender Man case, there was—and is—unbelievable media interest. Having worked on many controversial issues, I know how important it is to maintain positive relationships with the media while also ensuring that I remained disciplined about what we could say—and not say—to protect the family.

What is the most important thing you do in a case like this?
Storytelling. Helping clients communicate in the clearest possible way their core values and the value of their ideas. The family in this case had an extraordinarily heart-warming (and heart-breaking) story to tell. So it was my job to help portray them for who they are—a hard-working, middle-class family with strong family values—without pulling them personally into the story.

How did you learn how to portray this family’s story?
How someone speaks can be as important as what they say. So in this case, it was extremely important for me to spend a lot of time with the family to understand how they talk about this tragedy—and not just what they say about it. 

How does crisis communication work in today’s media landscape?
In this instantaneous world of social media, everyone can be a publisher and everyone can immediately access information of almost any type. So communication strategies and crisis communication are more important and urgent. In this case, the public—including bloggers and social media types—were restricted to getting all their information from traditional media. So by staying on top of the story and being extremely responsive to traditional media, we could also somewhat control what was repeated in social media networks—and how it was repeated. 

How does this case compare to other work you’ve done?
This was by far the highest-visibility, most demanding issue I’ve ever faced. But I have worked on many issues requiring an integrated blend of skills, including the passage of the state’s new venture capital law last session, efforts to pass a venture bill had failed for over a decade prior to our involvement a new (but narrow) medical marijuana law that was introduced as a medical option to helps kids with seizures, some of which have one hundred seizures a day.

How is Payton Leutner doing? 
Her physical wounds are healed. She’s back in school and doing well. She’s a real survivor. But it will still be a long road to full recovery.