Media Relations: PR gets on the right side of the lawyers - The sensitivity of the case of the two British nurses in Saudi Arabia has brought lawyers and PR professionals to work closely together on media presentation in a unique way

Murder, confessions, floggings and death sentences - one could not fail to notice the case of the British nurses accused of murder in Saudi Arabia which hit the headlines again last week with a vengeance.

Murder, confessions, floggings and death sentences - one could not

fail to notice the case of the British nurses accused of murder in Saudi

Arabia which hit the headlines again last week with a vengeance.



The reported sentencing of Lucille McLauchlan to 500 lashes and eight

years in prison plus rumours of a death sentence for Deborah Parry and a

’blood money deal’ were flashed around the world, and made front page

news from London to Sydney. What you may not be aware of is the joint

legal and PR team handling the story for the British families of the two

nurses.



While it is not unusual for a PR company and a legal firm to share high

profile clients, the tightly co-ordinated team dealing with the Saudi

case seems virtually unique.



’Neither the legal nor public information team can act in ignorance of

the other, because they are so inextricably linked,’ says Peter Watson,

the McLauchlan family lawyer, who has built a career out of working on

high profile cases such as Dunblane, Lockerbie, and Piper Alpha.



Along with the Parry family lawyer, Rodger Pannone (whose track record

also includes working for the families of the Lockerbie disaster), he

has joined forces with Media House, the Glasgow-based PR company set up

by Jack Irvine, former managing director of News International

Scotland.



Watson and Irvine - who also represented the Dunblane families together

- seem to have identified such a unique niche that they are considering

forming a business to specialise in the work.



Watson says they have built their close relationship on the realisation

that ’when you deal with high profile cases clients must take into

account that they are going to be on TV and in the newspapers.’



’It’s inevitable and you either control that or it happens around you,’

he says. ’As a lawyer it’s always better to control it.’



The flow of information surrounding the nurses’ case has been complex

and contradictory, often confused by the number of people involved - the

Saudi legal team, the Australian brother of the victim, the

diplomats.



The sensitivity of the issues involved, legally, politically and

emotionally, and their careful media handling, has made an

interdependent legal and publicity team inevitable.



’Every statement you get you have to shine a spotlight on to check every

conceivable angle,’ says Irvine. Part of his role has been to explain to

international media that it must not make assumptions about the Saudi

legal system based on the Western version.



’Media House warn us of impending problems - they have a better

understanding of how media interest is going to flow,’ says Watson.



Watson points out that the case has been ’plagued by a series of

comments from unattributable sources’. The interpretation of the legal

information emanating from Saudi Arabia is vital and this is the crux of

their relationship.



’One of the secrets is knowing when to shut up,’ says Irvine.



Watson says the case turned a corner when the team held a press

conference in June to present defence evidence for the nurses which has

not been heard in the Saudi court. The conference attracted

international coverage and was beamed live to Australia. Although the

conference was criticised by the Saudi ambassador as ’irresponsible and

ill-advised’, it seems to have swung the British press firmly behind the

nurses.



This case is a prime example of the development of closer links between

PR and the law. Michael Regester, director of crisis management

specialist Regester Larkin, says there has been a meeting of minds

between lawyers and PR professionals.



’It’s a shift by the legal profession. They have recognised that they

need to look at the communications aspect of what they are doing,’ he

says.



Regester also points out that both roles are focused on protecting the

client and believes that it is important that the relationship continues

to become closer.



Fishburn Hedges director Sue Stapely, is the former head of PR at the

Law Society and still carries a practising certificate as a

solicitor.



She says there are a number of solicitors who have ’a good understanding

of the need for effective news management, but also have sought advice

from PR professionals.’



’As the law becomes increasingly complex and people more litigious I

sense there will be a growing role for PR professionals to work in this

area and more lawyers will stray onto the PR professional’s turf,’ says

Stapely.



What has emerged from the Saudi case is that a media savvy lawyer or a

PR consultant with legal knowledge is not individually enough to run a

successful communications strategy.



A sombre thought is that the ultimate test of Watson, Pannone and

Irvine’s success will be the fates of Lucille McLauchlan and Deborah

Parry.



The story so far

December 1996 Nurses arrested.

31 December 1996 Families approach lawyer Peter Watson.

1 January 1997 Media House brought in.

6 January 1997 First press release issued, announcing Watson’s

appointment.

6 June 1997 Press conference at Glasgow Hilton, with both families and

their lawyers. Two live broadcasts to Australia, 12 camera crews, 20

photographers, 30 reporters.

23 September 1997 Sentence of Lucille McLauchlan announced. Jack Irvine

interviewed by BBC, ITN, Newsnight, BBC World Service, Canadian

Broadcasting Corporation, German station Pro 7.



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