CHICAGO: More than three-fourths of respondents in a survey of general counsels at Fortune 150 companies said they do not think corporations can get fair trials because of negative publicity about companies since the economic downturn and subsequent financial scandals.
The study also found that when corporations are sued, fewer than one-fifth use an outside PR firm.
The as-yet-unreleased survey by Hill & Knowlton polled 48 general counsels from Fortune 150 companies about their attitudes on high-profile litigation against corporations and the role PR can play in it.
Almost half of the general counsels strongly agreed with the statement, "Corporations are guilty until proven innocent in today's regulatory and litigation environment." Another 29% agreed with the statement.
About 80% also agreed or strongly agreed that recent media coverage of corporate wrongdoing has made it "substantially harder for corporations to secure a fair and impartial jury."
Such attitudes make PR more necessary to a corporation that is facing litigation, said Harlan Loeb, US director of litigation services at H&K.
Yet two-thirds of the general counsels said their companies generally rely on in-house corporate communications. Only 17% responded that they depend on an existing relationship with a PR firm.
"The [corporations'] responses are fueling what they perceive to be an imbalance in their access to justice," Loeb said.
The winners in the court of public opinion have been plaintiffs' lawyers, Loeb said. Their PR approach is more savvy than that of the corporations they're suing, he said, and this translates into favorable media coverage, which can influence trials.
Nearly half of the general counsels said plaintiffs' lawyers have contributed to the growth in shareholder lawsuits. Only one-fifth blamed actual corporate wrongdoing.