Analysis: PROs must be involved prior to any legal action

Stockbroking firm Collins Stewart's current legal wrangling with the Financial Times is just one of a number of recent high-profile examples of cases where PR support is being brought in. Tom Williams looks at the continuing rise of litigation PR

Analysis: PROs must be involved prior to any legal action
Analysis: PROs must be involved prior to any legal action

For the likes of Collins Stewart's recently hired PR firm M Communications, which is advising on legal action involving former employee James Middleton as well as the Financial Times, the release this week of the second edition of the Law Society's Media Relations for Lawyers, couldn't be better timed.

The release of this guide, coupled with a recent proliferation of litigation PR firms - from Bell Yard Communication late last year (PRWeek, 13 December 2002) to crisis specialist Limehouse Partners's launch last week of a separate practice dedicated to the issue, (PRWeek, 12 September) - shows that litigation is increasingly being seen a PR growth area.

The Law Society book's author, solicitor and strategic issues consultant at Quiller Consultants Sue Stapely, believes that much has changed since the guide's first edition in 1994.

The new litigation section, she says, reflects in part the growth in 'trial by media', such as the interest surrounding the case of TV celebrity John Leslie. As Leslie was the subject of intense media interest before any legal action had even started, this shows that the most effective litigation PRO is one who is an integral part from the outset rather than one who only handles the media once litigation starts.

For example, Bell Yard was involved from an 'early' stage when dealing with client Steven Horkulak, according to agency founder Richard Elsen.

Horkulak alleged constructive dismissal and breach of contract against his former employer Cantor Fitzgerald International and won.

A litigation PRO who declined to be named says it is vital 'to get in the first punch', and early involvement is an integral part of that.

Stapely goes even further, saying she regards it as 'bordering on negligence' if lawyers considering litigation do not bring in a PR firm during the planning stages. Some, she points out, take years before seeking PR advice.

Weber Shandwick head of media strategy Michael Prescott, who advised Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas on their High Court action against Hello! (PRWeek, 7 February) says that some litigation lawyers need to overcome a certain professional 'sniffiness' to PROs, who may often be in the best place to advise whether a client should go to court in the first place.

Some lawyers agree. Farrer & Co senior partner Robert Clinton says: 'The trick is to dovetail the interests of the lawyer and the PR professional.

A win is not a win if... the PR gets cocked up,' he says.

Finding that dovetail in the UK is particularly tricky. The Contempt of Court Act restricts the information that can be circulated to the press during court proceedings, making the litigation PRO's job a difficult one.

At the same time, changes to civil proceedings made by Lord Woolf in 1999 have made the adoption of an effective communications strategy more crucial than ever.

These reforms mean that in civil cases, witnesses now need not take the stand to make their statements, but can submit them in writing to the court.

Witnesses are, however, required to take the stand to be cross-examined, and it is this element of proceedings which excites journalists the most and gives the greatest headache to the unprepared litigation PRO.

Elsen says: 'The changes mean that journalists only get to hear the weakest part of any party's side, and this puts you on the back foot.

'My client or their supporting witness are going straight in to being attacked by the other side.'

He adds that an awareness of the way in which litigation proceedings are conducted in the UK, and a cosy relationship with the right sections of the press, for example freelance court specialists, can pre-empt and improve a client's exposure.

Good litigation PROs will often make sure that if their client is the one taking action they get their message out first by planting a story in the Evening Standard and the Sunday papers, thus grabbing the first, and possibly the biggest, media hit.

Stapely also highlights the need to be aware of the length of litigation proceedings, which can stretch to five weeks or even longer, and contempt of court legislation. This is of particular importance to those handling PR for the defendants and respondents.

'Journalists will start reporting at the beginning of the process, which means they are often reporting the prosecution or the applicant's case.

It could be weeks before your client can respond, so one side will get widely reported and the story could grow legs,' says Stapely.

In the end however, most PROs and litigation lawyers would agree that the decision to pursue a case is not one that should be taken lightly.

Clinton makes his plea for litigation sanity: 'The one thing that any professional adviser cries out for is single, informed and empowered control from someone on the company board,' he says. It may prove to be the best PR advice for litigious clients yet.

DOS & DON'TS

Do

- Say if you think litigation will bring negative publicity

- Make the first move if publicity looks inevitable

- Learn as much as you can about the other side

Don't

- Try to be a lawyer; let the legal team speak to the press if

clarification is needed.

- Reveal privileged information; you will jeopardise your client's case

- Be afraid to disagree with the lawyers or the client

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