Posted At: April 9, 2008 12:11 PM
by Katie Dageforde
In today’s business environment, lawsuits seem to pop up for every reason imaginable. Litigation can affect everyone from the smallest, private business to the largest, multi-million dollar corporation. Tom Heiby, CEO of Clary Communications in Columbus, Ohio, says in an article for Public Relations Strategist magazine that “some of the most common reasons for litigation are disgruntled employees, product recalls/faulty products, mergers and acquisitions, fraud and white-collar crime.” Since for many companies, especially large corporations, these types of problems occur all the time, litigation seems virtually unavoidable. So, if and when such legal situations do arise, what role does public relations play in influencing them?
According to the New York Law School Web site, “no major corporate litigation should take place without considering its public relations ramifications.” Legal experts are realizing more and more just how helpful a PR practitioner can be when trying to win a lawsuit. Like it or not, judges and juries are not immune to the influences of the media and other outside sources, no matter how just our legal system strives to be.
Because of this need for communication-savvy professionals in the legal system, a new branch of PR called “litigation public relations” is emerging. Litigation public relations is a term used to describe the managing of a client’s image during a legal dispute and the influencing of the outcome of the proceedings. New York Law School encourages lawyers to consult PR practitioners on “such concerns as when to speak to the press and how to frame one’s message, what media sites are optimal for particular kinds of communications, (and) how much to divulge and how much to hold back.” Since we as PR professionals practice and implement these tactics every day, who better for a lawyer to consult than us?
Why litigation PR is NOT crisis management
Some people argue that litigation public relations is just another form of crisis management. However, the two areas of public relations could not be more different. They may have similar goals, but the conditions under which they work are not the same.
In his book “In the Court of Public Opinion,” John F. Haggerty, president of The PR Consulting Group in New York, explains why crisis management is not the same as litigation public relations.
“Companies and consultants skilled at crisis communications are usually ready to respond to any crisis, anywhere, at a moment’s notice,” he says. “While all of this may be necessary if the crisis is a lawsuit, litigation PR is much more than this—and strict reliance on classic crisis communications techniques can sometimes do more harm than good.”
One of the reasons Haggerty uses to differentiate litigation public relations from crisis management has to do with time span. A crisis manager’s job is usually implemented during the 24 to 48 hours right after the incident. However, because lawsuits can take several months or even years, a litigation PR specialist’s job is ongoing, and he or she needs to be able to maintain a steady amount of pressure over long periods of time. Because of this reason, normal PR “events,” such as press conferences or rallies, are not as effective as they would be in other areas of public relations.
Litigation public relations is also allowed to break another cardinal PR rule. In most crisis situations, the client is usually positioned as the spokesperson so that the company or individual appears more personable and sincere. However, since lawsuits often revolve around very complex issues that the general public may not understand, the client may not be the best choice for spokesperson.
“Litigation PR is one of the few areas where you can hand off the spokesperson’s role to one of the attorneys on the case without fear of repercussions,” says Haggerty. “These are, after all, legal issues we are dealing with.”
Not just on the courtroom steps
It is also important to realize that litigation public relations does not only apply to cases already in the courthouse. People normally only see public relations practitioners at work in regard to lawsuits at giant press conferences on courthouse steps or in heated debates on CNN or Fox News. However, Haggerty points out that most lawsuits are settled before they even get a chance to go public.
“According to R. Lawrence Dessem in his book ‘Pretrial Litigation: Laws, Policies & Practice,’ less than 10 percent of lawsuits filed in this country ever see the inside of a courtroom,” says Haggerty. “Clearly, the bulk of the legal activity in this country goes on outside the courtroom, long before a lawsuit ever goes to trial—and the overwhelming majority of communications counseling in litigation goes on outside the courtroom as well.”
“Visual Litigation: Litigation Public Relations.” (2007). Retrieved Mar. 31, 2008, fromwww.nyls.edu/pages/4008.asp
Haggerty, John F. (2003). “Chapter One: Welcome to the Hotseat: This is Litigation PR.” In the Court of Public Opinion: Winning Your Case with Public Relations. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Heiby, Tom. (2007). “Litigation and Your Board: Assigning Order to Chaos.” Public Relations Strategist.
Do you think an outside perspective from a public relations professional can help win a lawsuit?