OPINION: News Analysis - UK litigation PR upsurge set to mimic the States. Litigation PR is well-established in the US. With corporates now aware of the reputational impact of legal issues, this area is growing in the UK

’Winning the case in the court of public opinion’ may be a hackneyed phrase, but it comes up time and again when discussing the PR surrounding major legal cases.

’Winning the case in the court of public opinion’ may be a

hackneyed phrase, but it comes up time and again when discussing the PR

surrounding major legal cases.



Two litigation communications practices have opened up within London

agencies Shandwick and Grandfield in recent weeks.



These moves have managed to avoid the term ’litigation PR’. Grandfield

describes its offering as ’litigation support’, while Shandwick prefers

the broader Dispute Communications. The director in charge of that new

practice, Jon McLeod, claims that the emphasis on disputes over

litigation is crucial, since much of the time his unit will be trying to

stop matters reaching court.



The Woolf reforms to civil justice - which came into effect last year -

place great stress on lawyers trying to settle disputes before wasting

court time. As that becomes a requirement for the legal profession, the

battle to capture public opinion and save or protect corporate and

individual reputations is becoming an increasingly open field.



The concept of bolting PR on to litigation comes, inevitably, from the

US where freedom of speech and less onerous rules attached to contempt

of court mean major agencies have been able to establish an estimated

pounds 200 million annual industry on the basis of law firm referrals

and PR clients who find themselves in legal hot water.



One of the founders of the genre is New York’s Howard J Rubinstein,

lawyer, PR adviser to Rupert Murdoch for 26 years and an active

litigation PRO for almost as long. ’When we started it was not an

accepted method of building support for a legal case. Now every high

profile case has PR people on both sides talking to the press,’ he

says.



With this in mind, Stephen Lock - a Cambridge law graduate who quit as

Ludgate public affairs MD in June - built up a healthy practice on

referrals from law firms to fight and win public opinion battles, even

when taking part in court battles would have been against the law.

Lock’s work for the Manoukian brothers in the Prince Jefri of Brunei

libel case two years ago ended in a front page Evening Standard story

describing the Prince’s ’Hyde Park Sex Den’. The public opinion battle

was fought and won. Lock - together with three other senior ex-Ludgate

staff - plans to launch a litigation PR agency before the end of the

year.



Lock says the area is growing partly because it is exciting. ’It mixes

the fun of consumer PR with the intellectual demands of financial. To do

it well, you need to be a cross between Max Clifford and Alan Parker,

with a dash of Rumpole about you,’ he says.



Shandwick’s McLeod says the principle behind this growing trend is

simple: ’Any dispute cannot be seen as hermetically sealed from outside

influences.’ The 1980 Contempt of Court Act means it is not possible to

influence the outcome of a case while it is in front of a judge, but

McLeod says, ’There is a huge role for PR to play in influencing the

debate before it gets to court, in the hope that it then won’t.’



Another early convert to the benefits of litigation PR was George

Pitcher, founder of Luther Pendragon and a legal and financial

journalist before joining the industry. ’To anyone who says the only

things that matter in a court case are the judge and jury I say look at

Jeffrey Archer - he won his case in court and yet lost heavily in the

court of public opinion,’ says Pitcher.



Jim Boyd, a qualified solicitor who, with director and barrister Ed

Vaizey, runs Consolidated Communications’ Litigation Support unit,

agrees: ’You need to know the contempt rules inside out and be

absolutely respectful of the legal process. But if you don’t prejudge

the case it’s feasible to take account of the brand you want to protect

or promote and use media relations effectively to that end.’



There are other bars to winning from the sidelines, including legal

snobbery.



Kevin Craig, public affairs account director at law firm Dibb Lupton

says lawyers are rightly nervous of anything which may infringe Law

Society codes. ’Our job uses political and media nous to stop the

dispute escalating,’ he argues.



A key obstacle is that while most PR people are less than fluent in

legalese, lawyers are often confident they can handle the communications

aspects of their cases as well as the legal. Fishburn Hedges’ Sue

Stapely, a former Law Society PR head who claims to be the only

practising solicitor on the board of a UK PR firm, highlights this.

Stapely, author of Media Relations for Lawyers, says: ’The volume of

material involved and the mindset of lawyers - who are largely

unconvinced of the value added by PR - means it can be daunting for most

PR people. That feeling has to be overcome.’



In the US, most major agencies have some form of litigation PR

practice.



The constitution grants the right to free speech, which in all but

exceptional cases overrides rules on what may be said about sub- judice

matters. Fleishman-Hillard, Ketchum and, of course, Shandwick have

active units in the area.



The UK legal system is very different and the practice has taken longer

to get going. As corporates become aware of the reputational impact of

the legal, the UK’s litigation PR field will surely grow as well.



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