PR TECHNIQUE: Winning in the court of public opinion

Before a big, tell-all interview, the legal and PR counsel must take several steps to make sure the interview will do their client more good than harm.

Before a big, tell-all interview, the legal and PR counsel must take several steps to make sure the interview will do their client more good than harm.

Nothing captures America's attention more than the tell-all interview after an arrest or lawsuit. Whether it's a corporate scandal or a celebrity behaving badly, legal troubles are perfect fodder for the prime-time news. And with the advent of Court TV and other crime-heavy outlets, legal cases have increasingly become communications problems as well, since audiences are likely to remember the coverage better than the outcome. With reputations on the line, companies and individuals are willing to speak out to present their side of the case. But the smart ones know that talking to the media is best done with professional help; for litigation PR experts, sitting down for an interview is the last step in a very thorough process. Before interviews are even considered, litigation communicators say that building rapport with the attorneys is a necessity. Clearly, the legal case is a priority. Lawyers often like to be in control of all communications, making it difficult for PR people to function effectively. Addressing that situation up front and establishing responsibilities and protocols is essential. "Make sure you're working hand-in-glove with the legal team," says Aaron Kwittken, president of Euro RSCG Middleberg, which has handled high-profile litigation PR for matters such as the antitrust case between Bristol Technologies and Microsoft. "The legal objective is often at odds with a reputation objective. A lawyer's job is to manage risk. Our job is to take into account risk, but also look for reward." If the goal is long-term reputation management, then the problem isn't the short-term result of the legal case, explains Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR and a frequent commentator on Court TV. "There are some extreme cases where the best thing that can happen to your client is for them to go to jail for six months." With the final objectives hammered out, litigation communicators start strategizing on how the media and public perceive the issue, and what press tactics can be used to influence both the general audience and those - like the jury pool - who may be critical to the legal outcome. "It's very possible that a defendant can win the legal case, but lose in the court of public opinion," points out Neal Flieger, manager of Edelman's litigation strategies practice. "It could be critical for a client to explain themselves to the public in a way they may not need to explain themselves to a judge." Experts agree that it's important to have a complete understanding of the case, which means studying case files and talking to principals. Only then can a PR person begin to understand where opposing counsel and media will look for weak spots, and how the story can be framed in the most positive and compelling way. Then the task becomes creating that package to present to the press. "You can't effectively tell a story with only facts, because facts don't speak from the heart," says Alan Hilburg, president and CEO of PNConsulting, which specializes in litigation PR. "You have to have a blend where you weave in your facts together with the emotional part of the story." But blending facts doesn't involve adding fantasy, and getting caught in a fib can permanently damage a reputation. "That has never worked," says MGP's Paul. After the homework is done, it's time to decide who should be the spokesperson. Some experts believe the principals should come forward; others say they'd never let the client in the interview chair. Most agree it depends on the type of case, civic or criminal. "In a criminal case, you would never have your client do the interview," says Hilburg. For corporate clients, the rules can change again, since expectations are different from individual legal issues. "If you're the plaintiffs, you typically want your CEO as your spokesperson," explains Kwittken. "If you're the defendant, you want to marginalize the plaintiff's suit as baseless and without merit, so you don't want the CEO as a spokesperson. If you use a C-level spokesperson in that case, you are legitimizing the claim and making it seem bigger than it is." And sometimes no spokesperson is the best route to go if the issue is small enough. "I would rather have a Stone Phillips read my client's statement because that person reads it with great authority, and it makes it a shorter story with less elements," points out David Margulies of Dallas-based Margulies Communications Group, which represents the Marshall family defendants in litigation with Anna Nicole Smith. Once the interviewee is chosen, the one-on-one work begins. "The first thing you do is prepare the interviewee for the worst-case scenario," explains Hilburg, "so that they have been so beaten up in practice that nothing the interviewer asks is a surprise." Crisis experts routinely grill their representatives with grueling mock interviews, asking the ugly questions that lawyers would rather not see raised. Every communications person fears a debacle like former California congressman Gary Condit's interview with Connie Chung, so it's better to look the beast in the face before the cameras are there to catch it. Otherwise, a bad interview can leave lasting reputation damage. "With Condit and all these other people you see who look like idiots, it's the lack of preparation," points out Margulies. Part of the preparation is understanding who the reporter is and what he or she is after. "A reporter will always try to provide the breakthrough in a case," says Flieger. "They imagine the interview is going to provide them with the Perry Mason moment. It's their nature." Flieger advises that communicators take the time to provide the reporter with as much information as possible, not only to make sure they are not misinformed, but also to attempt to influence the direction of the interview. "Really focus in on the reporter," advises Margulies. "Know exactly what they want to know and what they've been told." But the best reporters may hold a few cards back to throw on the table during the interview. For taped and print interviews, don't be afraid to step in and interrupt with a plausible and polite excuse if things start to get out of hand. Kwittken says he carries a BlackBerry and cell phone, and advises the reporter beforehand that there may be other important business that needs the client's attention during the interview. That way, if a client gets in trouble, he can interrupt with "urgent" matters and hopefully break the momentum of the questioning. ----- Technique tips Do know the case and the players inside and out Do frame an understanding of responsibilities and protocols with the legal team Do create a compelling story for the press with more than just legal facts Don't be afraid to grill the client in preparation for an interview Don't speak without legal permission Don't exaggerate the truth

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