ANALYSIS: Litigation PR - As trials go public, PR seats itself courtside - Corporate litigation is no longer played out behind closed doors. Today’s climate of insatiable media means that a PR strategy is becoming critical to companies facing liti

For those of us who have long appreciated a searing courtroom drama, it comes as no surprise that so many PR firms are bolstering their litigation PR capabilities. It’s only logical that more and more lawsuits with ever-higher stakes will generate a greater need to manage the message when the fray spills out of the courtroom and onto the front page.

For those of us who have long appreciated a searing courtroom drama, it comes as no surprise that so many PR firms are bolstering their litigation PR capabilities. It’s only logical that more and more lawsuits with ever-higher stakes will generate a greater need to manage the message when the fray spills out of the courtroom and onto the front page.

For those of us who have long appreciated a searing courtroom

drama, it comes as no surprise that so many PR firms are bolstering

their litigation PR capabilities. It’s only logical that more and more

lawsuits with ever-higher stakes will generate a greater need to manage

the message when the fray spills out of the courtroom and onto the front

page.



Cohn & Wolfe’s recent alliance with New York law firm Davidoff & Malito

(PRWeek, July 31) underscores the increasing importance of litigation

PR. Yet even longtime lawyer groupies might marvel about this past

year’s sizeable uptick in litigation PR business, attributable to

everything from online fever to poor performances by powerful people in

the judicial system’s limelight.



Though few might have foreseen the breadth of this surge, its lucre is a

phenomenon that PR firms of all sizes can’t just ignore. ’I’m getting a

new case almost every week,’ marvels Howard Rubenstein, president of

Rubenstein Associates. ’So much is happening. We have people flying in

from across the country to talk to us about doing litigation PR,’ he

says of his New York-based operation. ’When my firm opened in 1992,

there were hardly any other people doing this,’ recalls Rose Marshall,

president of Legal PR. Now, she says the field is booming.



The business spike has been boosted by ballooning damage assessments

that juries have been willing to mete out, such as the recent $145

billion tobacco verdict. ’Awards are really driving this,’ Marshall

contends.





An opportunity squandered



And of course, no one really wants to have a year like Bill Gates is

having. Microsoft’s communications strategy surrounding its antitrust

lawsuit has been roundly criticized. ’Microsoft has a good story to

tell,’ observes Marshall. ’It’s a shame they didn’t get out there

earlier on.’ Indeed, Microsoft might provide the textbook case of a

litigation PR opportunity squandered. After all, everybody pretty much

hated the phone company back when the AT&T breakup was going on. But

Bill Gates? If the richest man in the country can flounder in the court

of public opinion, what does that mean for the rest of us? (For those

wondering whether Microsoft is mending its ways, company spokesman Mark

Murray did not keep an appointment to be interviewed by PRWeek.)



In addition, negative news about corporate fumbling can be disseminated

almost instantaneously nowadays. ’The increase in e-mail usage alone has

played no small part’ in the rapid evolution of litigation

communications, says Deborah Schwartz, senior publicist with Jaffe

Associates. The Internet ’has become an extraordinary bastion for

plaintiffs’ lawyers,’ explains Richard Levick, president of Levick

Strategic Communications. Plaintiffs’ lawyers in need of some more

class-action work need not do much more than set up a site saying ’all

people who’ve spilled hot coffee on themselves at McDonalds, click

here,’ Levick says. ’For plaintiffs’ class action lawyers, it has become

click-and-play.’



Indeed, even as foreign investors are funneling money into US

businesses, they’re casting a wary eye on the American product liability

scheme. ’A lot of European and United Kingdom money is buying American

companies’ right now, notes Kent Jarrell, SVP/litigation support at APCO

Worldwide.



These overseas investors ’look at (the US) litigation machine, and it

scares them out of their wits,’ he adds. By the same token, a company

that experiences a product liability problem here can find itself facing

similar legal difficulties abroad. Hence the need for more and better

litigation PR.





A very rough ball game



It’s not, however, a specialty for everyone. Litigation PR ’requires a

24/7 response, multi-level skills and a level of trust between the

client and the PR professional that has less time to ripen’ than in the

more conventional here’s-a-new-product-and-isn’t-it-grand sort of PR,

Levick explains. ’Litigation PR can involve an ugly situation,’

acknowledges Jarrell. ’Very often, bad facts are involved, and it can be

a very rough ball game’ - and it’s not one that every PR pro plays

well.



’If you have cancer, you don’t go to your general practitioner, you go

to an oncologist,’ explains Jarrell. ’It’s like that with litigation

PR.’ You’ve got to call in the specialists. Once they get there, of

course, they’ve got to work well with the legal team.



’It has been my experience that what is most successful is a litigation

communication effort that is completely aligned with the legal effort,’

says Neil Flieger, a general manager at Edelman. ’You have to say the

same thing on the courthouse steps as in the courtroom. It’s critical to

credibility before the public, before the press covering the trial and

before the judge who might be reading the coverage.’ Although Edelman

does work for Microsoft, Flieger declines to comment on the trial.



’You have to be able to balance legal needs and PR needs,’ adds Michael

Sitrick, chairman of Sitrick & Company. A good dose of diplomacy

enhanced with a bit of candor can’t hurt.



A litigation PR pro also needs to know her audiences. ’Communication

services in litigation PR are not just for the general public or the

media,’ says Jarrell. Shareholders, regulators, customers, and even

competitors can’t be overlooked.



Nor can the big picture. Litigation PR is a practice area that is

’becoming a much longer-term service for companies,’ reports Karen

Doyne, director of litigation communications at Ketchum. Preparing for

litigation is becoming just another aspect of overall crisis plans, she

says.



Indeed, it’s the element of surprise that corporations should look to

eliminate when it comes to legal PR battles. ’If the first time you know

you’ve been sued is when Reuters or AP calls you, you’re doomed,’

Jarrell notes.



Given today’s high-speed news dissemination, it comes as no wonder that

litigators are somewhat more appreciative of the PR angle. ’There was a

time, most often in a legal conflict, when the PR person was either

acting in a vacuum or just taking direction from the legal team,’ says

Doyne. Though PR types are garnering more respect from the legal folks,

some frown upon being formally bound to law firms along the lines of the

Cohn & Wolfe model. ’You can corral yourself out of working with other

law firms,’ says Robert Bork, Jr., chairman of Bork and Associates. ’I

prefer not to have a strategic alliance.’



’If you are working through a law firm, you are a vendor to that law

firm,’ says one PR pro. ’The law firm does not have an interest in you

expanding your role.’



That said, it’s still nice to be asked. ’A couple of law firms

approached us about doing a strategic alliance,’ reports

Fleishman-Hillard regional president and GM Paul Johnson, who says that

a final decision has not yet been made. ’I think there is going to be

more of this.’ He couldn’t be more right.



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