’Winning the case in the court of public opinion’ may be a
hackneyed phrase, but it comes up time and again when discussing the PR
surrounding major legal cases.
Two litigation communications practices have opened up within London
agencies Shandwick and Grandfield in recent weeks.
These moves have managed to avoid the term ’litigation PR’. Grandfield
describes its offering as ’litigation support’, while Shandwick prefers
the broader Dispute Communications. The director in charge of that new
practice, Jon McLeod, claims that the emphasis on disputes over
litigation is crucial, since much of the time his unit will be trying to
stop matters reaching court.
The Woolf reforms to civil justice - which came into effect last year -
place great stress on lawyers trying to settle disputes before wasting
court time. As that becomes a requirement for the legal profession, the
battle to capture public opinion and save or protect corporate and
individual reputations is becoming an increasingly open field.
The concept of bolting PR on to litigation comes, inevitably, from the
US where freedom of speech and less onerous rules attached to contempt
of court mean major agencies have been able to establish an estimated
pounds 200 million annual industry on the basis of law firm referrals
and PR clients who find themselves in legal hot water.
One of the founders of the genre is New York’s Howard J Rubinstein,
lawyer, PR adviser to Rupert Murdoch for 26 years and an active
litigation PRO for almost as long. ’When we started it was not an
accepted method of building support for a legal case. Now every high
profile case has PR people on both sides talking to the press,’ he
With this in mind, Stephen Lock - a Cambridge law graduate who quit as
Ludgate public affairs MD in June - built up a healthy practice on
referrals from law firms to fight and win public opinion battles, even
when taking part in court battles would have been against the law.
Lock’s work for the Manoukian brothers in the Prince Jefri of Brunei
libel case two years ago ended in a front page Evening Standard story
describing the Prince’s ’Hyde Park Sex Den’. The public opinion battle
was fought and won. Lock - together with three other senior ex-Ludgate
staff - plans to launch a litigation PR agency before the end of the
Lock says the area is growing partly because it is exciting. ’It mixes
the fun of consumer PR with the intellectual demands of financial. To do
it well, you need to be a cross between Max Clifford and Alan Parker,
with a dash of Rumpole about you,’ he says.
Shandwick’s McLeod says the principle behind this growing trend is
simple: ’Any dispute cannot be seen as hermetically sealed from outside
influences.’ The 1980 Contempt of Court Act means it is not possible to
influence the outcome of a case while it is in front of a judge, but
McLeod says, ’There is a huge role for PR to play in influencing the
debate before it gets to court, in the hope that it then won’t.’
Another early convert to the benefits of litigation PR was George
Pitcher, founder of Luther Pendragon and a legal and financial
journalist before joining the industry. ’To anyone who says the only
things that matter in a court case are the judge and jury I say look at
Jeffrey Archer - he won his case in court and yet lost heavily in the
court of public opinion,’ says Pitcher.
Jim Boyd, a qualified solicitor who, with director and barrister Ed
Vaizey, runs Consolidated Communications’ Litigation Support unit,
agrees: ’You need to know the contempt rules inside out and be
absolutely respectful of the legal process. But if you don’t prejudge
the case it’s feasible to take account of the brand you want to protect
or promote and use media relations effectively to that end.’
There are other bars to winning from the sidelines, including legal
Kevin Craig, public affairs account director at law firm Dibb Lupton
says lawyers are rightly nervous of anything which may infringe Law
Society codes. ’Our job uses political and media nous to stop the
dispute escalating,’ he argues.
A key obstacle is that while most PR people are less than fluent in
legalese, lawyers are often confident they can handle the communications
aspects of their cases as well as the legal. Fishburn Hedges’ Sue
Stapely, a former Law Society PR head who claims to be the only
practising solicitor on the board of a UK PR firm, highlights this.
Stapely, author of Media Relations for Lawyers, says: ’The volume of
material involved and the mindset of lawyers - who are largely
unconvinced of the value added by PR - means it can be daunting for most
PR people. That feeling has to be overcome.’
In the US, most major agencies have some form of litigation PR
The constitution grants the right to free speech, which in all but
exceptional cases overrides rules on what may be said about sub- judice
matters. Fleishman-Hillard, Ketchum and, of course, Shandwick have
active units in the area.
The UK legal system is very different and the practice has taken longer
to get going. As corporates become aware of the reputational impact of
the legal, the UK’s litigation PR field will surely grow as well.