Building cases by proving the facts

The 19th-century British parliamentarian Thomas Macaulay said, "The object of oratory alone is not truth, but persuasion."

The 19th-century British parliamentarian Thomas Macaulay said, "The object of oratory alone is not truth, but persuasion."

Macaulay, who also played a significant role in abolishing the British slave trade in the West Indies, captured the essence of what effective lawyers must do every day in building bodies of evidence persuasive enough to sway skeptical judges and juries.

As a print and television journalist for a dozen years - followed by another dozen helping companies manage difficult issues in the public eye - I've frequently worked with, and otherwise observed, lawyers. What has struck me time and again is not how our roles differ, but what we have in common - the need to persuade target audiences to take action.

While lawyers can learn a thing or two from PR pros about public communications, we certainly can learn from their approach to building compelling, persuasive cases. Good trial lawyers understand it is not enough merely to tell judges and juries what they should conclude. Instead, they focus on building cases so persuasive that judges and juries are left with no choice but to find in favor of their clients.

Those who have given depositions, and others who merely have seen the process dramatized on TV, know what lawyers typically counsel clients to say: "Just answer 'Yes' or 'No,' and then shut up or you'll get us into trouble." Media training actually prepares spokespeople to do the opposite - to address reporters' questions succinctly and "bridge" to important messages that protect and enhance an organization's reputation.

But like lawyers, we as communicators need to support our key messages with evidentiary detail - an arsenal of proof points that substantiate otherwise hollow claims. I'm talking about those critical, yet often overlooked, facts, statistics, studies, third-party testimonials, examples, and personal anecdotes that distinguish our organizations and make our stories compelling, memorable, and persuasive.

Just as top trial lawyers study and appeal to the sensitivities of judges and juries, our messages must address directly the interests and concerns of our target audiences in order to win their support. Most importantly, we must be able to communicate precisely how our words are supported by actions.

Crisis management pros recently praised Mattel for its initial handling of a series of recalls of millions of toys made in China. The company's multimedia communications, led by CEO Bob Eckert, assured the public that Mattel had immediately taken steps to rectify the situation and ensure "rigorous quality and safety testing procedures." Eckert detailed a new "three-point check system" of quality control - from certification of suppliers to "unannounced random inspections" of vendor facilities, to the testing of "every production run of finished toys."

We won't know for some time just how effective Mattel's actions will be, but we do know from experience that those who don't, or can't, substantiate their claims with evidence run the risk of undermining their credibility with audiences who matter most.

So, the next time a reporter or analyst asserts, "Prove it to me," challenge your own claims with a wickedly cynical approach and do exactly that - prove out your premise!

Jeff Leshay
is an EVP and GM at Edelman in Chicago, leading the reputation management and media training practices.

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