Crisis Practitioner Ian Christopher McCaleb on The Importance of Advocating for Artists

When a lawsuit is in the public eye, a client may need more than a legal strategy. For individuals and companies facing disputes that threaten their reputation, a media strategy is an essential component of their recovery plan. For underserved communities like artists, that need is often amplified.

Photo by Michelle C. Roberts Photography.

Ian Christopher McCaleb is uniquely situated to advocate for artists, companies and individuals facing high-profile litigation. A musician himself, McCaleb has worked as spokesperson for the Department of Justice, put in a handful of years as a strategist for the U.S. intelligence community, has been around the world as a journalist, and has held senior editorial positions at both CNN and the Fox News Channel. He has built a reputation as a legal PR virtuoso, as passionate as he is strategic.

McCaleb started his PR firm, Blue Highway Advisory, in 2022, naming it after an autobiographical travel book published in 1982 by William Least Heat-Moon. Highways in the old Rand McNally maps were marked with blue if they were off the beaten path, indicating the roads less traveled. The name resonates with McCaleb, who was never one to stick to a rote path.

“It's very intentional, because frankly, the people who would know the history of the reference are amongst a wide group of creators who are really suffering mightily right now,” says McCaleb, who represents a variety of clients, but has a particular zeal for creators’ rights. “So many artists, or the estates of artists who are no longer with us, are being left behind in regard to proper compensation, most especially as their works are replicated, reproduced and reissued through varieties of mediums, often without their knowledge or consent.”

In addition to representing whistleblowers and clients in various industries facing high-profile civil and criminal cases, McCaleb is known for his work with recording artists, filmmakers, authors and others facing or filing lawsuits over contracts, compensation and other fundamental issues that often boil down to their very economic viability and survival. He works in conjunction with his client’s attorneys to place high-impact media narratives that help fortify their cases, well before a jury assembles.

When high-profile clients – like hip hop artist Pras Michel, a former member of the Fugees – face high-stakes litigation and need help crafting and delivering their narratives, McCaleb believes long-form, in-depth, investigative journalism is the best way forward. He knows the power that a well-placed narrative can wield in a world where the trials of public opinion start long before anyone sets foot inside a courtroom.

McCaleb is a member of the Lawdragon Global 100 Leaders in Legal Strategy and Consulting.

Lawdragon: You’ve had a fascinating career trajectory. How did you get started?

Ian McCaleb: I always knew I wanted to go into journalism. At 22, I landed a bit of a dream job reviewing movies and video games for a now long-defunct national monthly magazine. The office had its own home theater system. It was certainly a great way to ease into the working world. This was the age of the newsstand cycle for magazines, roughly the late ‘80s. The magazine lasted about two years.

My next step was at a newsletter mill in D.C. called Phillips Business Information, where I ran a couple titles aimed at niche tech industries. Things jumped forward when I was poached by UPI, United Press International, as an international desk editor. I still think of UPI as the best job I ever held. The pay was low and the hours were long, but it was just the greatest bunch of people to toil in the trenches with, and the greatest learning experience I ever had. I eventually worked my way up to a Correspondent’s position in the House of Representatives.

Journalists who are struggling through their own uncertain experiences of this changing world share a range of commonalities with creators, and there is a tremendous amount of overlap between both worlds.

LD: Were you always interested in politics?

IM: I was always interested in geopolitics, if I can make that distinction. This started early. I was a big shortwave radio hobbyist as a kid – tuning in the weakest signals I could find, always interested in international journalism. With UPI, I got my feet wet with a fair amount of national and some international travel. But there was always a need in Washington for good editors and good reporters, so I never was never away for very long.

After UPI, I was a managing editor with McClatchy Newspapers, and was based at the News & Observer in Raleigh, then a Senior Editor for Congressional Quarterly. I was poached by CNN as a political correspondent, and a short number of years later I was scooped up by the Fox News Channel, where I was a senior producer in charge of defense, intelligence, federal law enforcement, the Federal courts, and terrorism coverage – my beat footprint there was long and wide. After I left Fox, I moved over to the Department of Justice.

LD: You worked as the senior spokesman for the Criminal Division at the DOJ, correct?

IM: Yes, and I had zero knowledge of how PR – even at the government level – might work, when I took that position. As a reporter, you're used to getting calls from PR reps while you're on deadline, and quite bluntly, you're also very used to hanging up on them. So, I never saw myself going into that role.

LD: How was the learning curve?

IM: It was tough. As a journalist in transition to the other side, you go into a job like that thinking you understand how to shape descriptions of big cases – and you’ll instinctively do so with a reporter's eye and flair for description and language. Unfortunately, and this is no criticism at all of the DOJ, I found that messaging priorities inside the department were a little different. I had very little power helping the big machine of the Public Affairs Office develop the way it was presenting its cases to the world at large. They have a locked down, rote, very prescribed manner of doing things, usually by simply issuing a gigantic press release when an indictment is issued, then going quiet until the end of a case.

You're discouraged from saying much to reporters in the way of detail, and as you would expect, a great deal what you do day in, day out is necessarily approved by layers of lawyers. Your work goes through various changes as it circulates through career officials' and political appointees' offices. It's a difficult system to navigate, especially if you're looking at the process from an effectiveness-of-messaging standpoint. I used to joke to my colleagues that in the morning, I'd craft an on-the-record statement for somebody, it would wind its way through the department, and by the end of the day it was whittled down to, "No comment."

LD: How long were you there?

IM: I resigned on my one-year anniversary. I was there from the end of '08 to the end of '09 – right at the end of the second Bush administration. The attorney general at the time was the short-lived Michael Mukasey. I had no particular political leanings at the time so I was brought in on a career track. I moved over to the Obama Justice Department when the transition happened.

LD: Right during the financial collapse.

IM: Yes, and I had been at two television networks prior, so I knew the depth to which the networks and the major dailies would be covering the story, and what they were looking for. I felt like I had the skill set to disseminate really solid messages about what was being done, or how a number of issues related to the unfolding financial collapse were being considered inside the department, but the department just wasn’t used to speaking publicly about those things, even with the daily flood of inquiries. I got to the point where I felt like I couldn't really make a difference.

LD: Where did you go from there?

I don’t know of too many people out there who can’t get behind the concepts of fair pay, fair compensation and a workable standard of living for those thousands of creators who have unquestionably made the experience of life bigger and better for all.

IM: After I resigned, I immediately took a position as an outside, sole-source consultant to the Defense Intelligence Agency, and was there for five years, two of which were on the multi-agency WikiLeaks Task Force. This was 2010, when the first set of WikiLeaks postings consisted of leaked military field reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. My portion of the operation was really intended to consider what the media's general attitude was, how they were processing the material in terms of their daily output, and in certain instances, how they might report stories related to leaked materials if they were to get hold of them. The aim was to gain an understanding of where public coverage would go over time, and subsequently where public perception would go if a decontextualized piece of intelligence was reported. It was an opportunity to blueprint some of the work I had wanted to do at DOJ – to relate a deeper understanding of press priorities and functions.

LD: You founded Blue Highway Advisory in 2022. What does your workload look like these days?

IM: A fair amount is either crisis or litigation comms for law firms or for individuals. I tend to work in direct conjunction with law firms almost exclusively. Usually big-ticket cases. Blue Highway is in its ‘small but growing’ phase, but the company is a really perfect marriage of all of my work experience, and all of my reporter and law firm connections. This is work I want to devote real time and passion to – including artists' rights and rights of creatives in regard to accounting issues, (think of the age-old term “Hollywood Accounting”), royalty recovery, the integrity of their output, their ongoing work, their history and their catalogs, and their absolute foundational rights to be paid fairly for their priceless contributions to this complicated world of ours.

I tend to work a little differently than a lot of bigger firms do. I will do very precise but sometimes not so routine litigation comms. I help reporters work their way through the docket, and I help clients tell their story through their lawyers. In turn, I help lawyers see and understand the necessity of targeted or surgical press. Many attorneys love the idea, but sometimes are very cautious. So, I’m there to manage attorneys’ expectations and appetites, as well as those of the end-client.

My specialty is long-form investigative journalism, working with reporters who take the time to do very deep pieces on a case or client. I do targeted media outreach – legal trades, Tier Ones, newspapers and television – but alongside that I'm able to nurture a giant magazine piece or an investigative TV piece from pitch to publication. That’s where the bulk of my work goes.

LD: How does that process look when it comes to representing an artist?

IM: I don’t want to give too much away about my processes, which I’m still perfecting, but there’s a remarkable, almost beautiful ease in working with varieties of journalists on behalf of a musician, author, filmmaker, digital or visual artist. Journalists who are struggling through their own uncertain experiences of this changing world share a range of commonalities with creators, and there is a tremendous amount of overlap between both worlds. That commonality, in turn, translates almost seamlessly with a reading or viewing audience. We all have a recording, a book, a film or an artwork, or several, that have inspired us to do better, to dream, to close our eyes and feel the world around us, most especially during the hardest of times. I don’t know of too many people out there who can’t get behind the concepts of fair pay, fair compensation and a workable standard of living for those thousands of creators who have unquestionably made the experience of life bigger and better for all. 

LD: What made you interested in advocating for artists’ rights?

IM: Among other things, I have been a "fits and starts" musician over a long period of time. I was also a published rock critic and I am a voracious consumer of music of all kinds. As far as I'm concerned, the appreciation of the creative output of my fellow human beings is really one of the most important things I can apply myself to – not just music, but film, books, art in all forms. I don't know how I would've gotten through certain periods of my own life and my career without music, literature and film in particular.

And let’s be very clear: From the standpoint of commodification, the arts are under-valued, misunderstood and under-appreciated. There isn’t one person who will read this who doesn’t retreat at some time or another into the creative work of another to find solace, inspiration, fellowship or escape. Still, so many artists are being left behind in regard to proper compensation, especially as their works are reproduced and reissued. It's an epidemic really. For every Bruce Springsteen, who can sell off his catalog to an investment firm for nine figures, there are 1,000+ other artists who at some point or other in their careers were known just well enough to sell some records and sell out some venues. Then Covid took so much more of their livelihoods away. I have thrived and been inspired by so many others through all phases of this life. I simply want to do what I can to give something back.

The arts are under-valued, misunderstood and under-appreciated. So many artists are being left behind in regard to proper compensation, especially as their works are reproduced and reissued.

LD: Tell us about your work with Pras Michel.

IM: There may be no better example of the complexity, sensitivity and effect of the way I try to do this work than the Pras case, which is still hacking through its own weeds, and has been continually described by legal observers as closely aligned with an overused metaphor involving bats. In the lead-up to trial, I worked with several feature reporters, the most notable of which was the investigative group at a glossy, international business weekly, in a concentrated effort to see that Pras’ role in the overall 1MDB matter was portrayed accurately, for the very first time. That was followed immediately by a personal profile spread of Pras in the April, 2023, issue of Rolling Stone, which gave us a 1-2 punch of case details and humanization that was an absolute necessity in the face of a prosecutorial effort that presented him as the central mastermind of the whole scandal.

Many other very favorable pieces followed through the five-week trial, and despite the fact that I had to extract myself from the engagement for a variety of reasons after trial, (and anyone who has followed that situation since knows this), that case has taken on a Jelly-of-the-Month club character, as it has been the gift that just keeps on giving well into 2024. Obviously, there’s more interesting stuff to be unpacked here, perhaps at a later time.

LD: How would you describe your philosophy or method when it comes to litigation PR?

IM: I don’t believe in set strategic plans going into a new engagement – everything I do demands detailed customization that is dependent on the client and the sector. In instances of litigation, no case is simple, and reporters are absolutely strapped. They don’t have beats anymore. Most reporters covering courthouses have to cover every case of interest that is working its way through their designated venue simultaneously. You just cannot get the depth and the detail that a client and the legal team really needs with any sort of ease, thanks to nearly 50 years of steady media industry contraction. Some vilify reporters for the jobs they do – I see a very different dynamic. I see professionals who are expected to file multiple stories per day on any variety of subject, always appearing as experts. They’re overworked, have to absorb way too much information, and have to play multiple roles at once, be they print, broadcast or online journalists.

This is why I'm all-in on long-form journalism as an absolute necessity. Long-form takes work and time, but if you can hit a sweet moment before trial where the mechanics and details of a case are described in a “table setter” – via the likes of the New York Times, or the Journal, or via Time or Newsweek, or even 60 Minutes – that can be enormously helpful. Especially when you're dealing with an adversary in a prosecutorial situation and their story is told by their pretrial press release, which is often very long but not necessarily impactful.

In the end, my job is really that of an educator. Reporters are strapped, so I’m doing everything I can to fulsomely walk them through as much detail as I can in a way that doesn’t frustrate, mislead or overwhelm.

LD: Is AI affecting your practice?

IM: I'm going to be kept very busy in the age of AI. A lot of people are going to suffer, as much as we all see AI as an indeterminate benefit in these early stages. I speak to painters, illustrators, digital designers and others who work in visual mediums who are all extremely worried at present. For the moment, visual art is the easiest medium to duplicate, and frankly to steal from. Recorded music is also under threat, and I’m gearing up to strategize on behalf of creators from disparate sectors who may want to push back against an unchecked spread of AI.

LD: What advice would you give a lawyer who finds themselves in the middle of a really high-profile litigation?

IM: Don't be afraid of long-form coverage. Don't be afraid of detail – it will only help magnify, expand and enhance your own strategies on behalf of your clients.

A story that shows up in print and online, if told accurately, can live forever. What differentiates my approach is my willingness to dive into absolute microscopic detail and work with either one reporter or a team of reporters toward a long, thoughtful, comprehensive piece that ultimately provides a foundational definition for a case or client.