More firms recognize value of integrating PR and legal

NEW YORK: The integration of PR with legal departments is becoming more common as companies become savvier about the benefits of litigation PR and more cases are being tried in the media.

NEW YORK: The integration of PR with legal departments is becoming more common as companies become savvier about the benefits of litigation PR and more cases are being tried in the media.

Companies are combining the two disciplines in a number of ways: by embedding PR practitioners in the legal department, by hiring PR directors with legal backgrounds, and by establishing litigation risk-management committees.

The Food & Drug Administration, which often tackles legal and regulatory issues, on September 7 became the most recent organization to appoint an attorney to its top communications post, Sheila Dearybury Walcoff.

And, last month, Toyota Motor North America announced that its group VP of corporate communications, Patricia Pineda, who oversees all PR and IR activities, would also serve as general counsel.

"In speaking with general counsel of Fortune 150 companies, it's becoming clear to me ... that the court of public opinion weighs heavily on" a case, said Harlan Loeb, director of Hill & Knowlton's litigation practice.

DaimlerChrysler appears to be one of the first companies to establish an in-house litigation PR position - for an attorney who also had broadcast experience - which it did more than five years ago.

Now almost all automakers have similar positions in place, said Mike Aberlich, director of corporate communications.

At DaimlerChrysler, Mary Gauthier is the senior manager of finance and legal media relations. Her background is in PR, not law.

Nevertheless, she noted, when it comes to lawsuits, it is the human side which interests the media most.

Allstate insurance in January also combined legal and PR duties under Kevin Sullivan, who is now VP of corporate communications after serving in government relations.

"We've been [trying] to forge a stronger relationship" between litigation and PR, he said. "The marriage is a positive one."

Phil Goldberg, an associate at law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon in Washington, DC, who previously worked in litigation PR, called the old adage "don't try your case in the media" an "antiquated notion."

"This is where the future is and where it should go," he said, adding that many companies still have doubts if legal PR is necessary. "It's a very smart move by some of these companies."

He added that the next frontier for litigation PR is to have communications between PR pros and lawyers protected by the attorney-client privilege.

Courts have gone both ways on the issue; in 2003, a federal judge rules that the PR work is covered.

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