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
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
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
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
’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
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
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
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
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
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
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.