PR TECHNIQUE: How to take the lawsuit into your own hands

When a company is named in a discrimination suit launched by an employee, the legal battle is only one of the challenges the company must face.

When a company is named in a discrimination suit launched by an employee, the legal battle is only one of the challenges the company must face.

Employee discrimination suits are a fact of life for American companies. But dealing with them merely as legal matters can create more problems than the suits themselves. What's at stake isn't just points of law, but a company's reputation with customers, vendors, investors, and its own employees. "CEOs are waking up to the fact that you can lose the company while you win the legal case," says Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management in Monrovia, CA. Even lawyers, once notorious for squelching PR efforts related to suits, have come to realize that public opinion matters. Today, lawyers and PR people are working closely together to craft messages aimed at key stakeholders and the media. A company being sued by employees or former employees needs to have an action plan that involves its communications and legal teams, along with HR and other departments that could be impacted by the suit and the publicity that goes with it. When a company is sued, "the first thing that happens is usually surprise," says Richard Chernela, a VP with Magnet Communications, who also once served as PR director for the New York State Division of Human Rights. A company has to quickly get past that initial surprise to assess the situation and what responses are appropriate, Chernela and others agree. "The issues are internal and external," says Patricia Thorp, president of Florida firm Thorp & Company. Internally, companies should determine which employees will be told about the suit and how. If the suit is a large one, all employees are likely to hear about it in the media. Companies in such cases need to quickly communicate their side to all employees. "Don't make the media your primary way of communicating," advises Bernstein. Pick other venues where the company can explain its position, such as on websites, via e-mail, conference calls, or meetings. Large companies may brief mid-level managers, and ask them to meet with their subordinates. Such statements should be simple and direct. "You can't look lawyerly," says Dan McGinn, CEO of The McGinn Group in Arlington, VA. "And you don't want to trash the employee" suing the company. Ellen Blattell of Blattell Communications in San Francisco suggests creating a Q&A for staffers, along with Q&As for the media and key company stakeholders. Staff communications should emphasize that the company values its employees and takes its antidiscrimination policies seriously. Statistics can be compiled to back such claims. Wal-Mart's reaction in late April to news that it was about to face a class-action suit demonstrates such efforts. The retailer went on the PR offensive, mobilizing female managers to respond to the suit's accusations. Communication protocols need to be put in place letting employees know who to refer media calls to, and how to respond to customer comments and questions. "In times like this, every employee is a crisis manager," notes Bernstein. In addition to employees, customers, analysts, and investors, along with other key stakeholders, also must be communicated to. Decisions must be made on who will communicate with each stakeholder group, and consistent messages must be formulated, working with legal counsel. "The absolute first thing is you have to work in lockstep with the lawyers," McGinn says. For media calls, a company statement should be drafted and distributed in writing. Facts of the case can't be discussed, but a company can state its antidiscrimination policy, and note that it takes such matters seriously. A point person should be designated to handle follow-up questions from reporters. In a major action, some caution against putting the CEO before the media, as this can tarnish the CEO's image. McGinn prefers to use attorneys. Doing so "helps people see it as just a legal issue," he says. The day after a suit is announced is often the busiest in terms of media calls. That's when reporters often hear rumors and allegations from disgruntled or former employees. "That's your biggest challenge: Be prepared for day two," says Chernela. The period between when a suit is announced and when a trial begins can be anywhere from one to three years. Companies should be busy working on their communications efforts during that time. Research should be done on the plaintiff's attorney to see if he or she uses the media a great deal. The company communications strategy needs to take such tactics into account. A list of reporters covering the trial also needs to be assembled. In many cases, such reporters are not the ones who cover the company on a daily basis, and therefore may need information. A log of media coverage should be kept to gauge the impact on the company's reputation. If a case ends up in court, the judge involved will often set the ground rules for what parties to the suit can or can't say, sometimes imposing a gag order. If a company can speak during a trial, it should craft messages for each day or each major development. If the number of reporters covering the case is small, written daily statements can be delivered to them. If the case has attracted major attention, press conferences might be the best way to disseminate the company's message of the day. Win or lose, a company should be gracious and humble. Gloating over a win or pouting over a loss is sure to create ill will. If a company loses, it needs to take action to show that it is implementing changes to prevent future problems. "People respond well to humility backed up by action that will keep this from happening again," says Bernstein. The vast majority of suits end in settlements before a verdict is reached. Companies need to prepare statements for settlements to address why they decided to settle, and to dispel implications that a settlement implies fault or guilt. After a suit is finished, a company should analyze how it handled the event, and draw lessons should another suit surface in the future, says Thorp. Look at what was done in terms of communications and what can be done better in the future. "You want to be seen as a company that doesn't run and hide," she says. And you want to minimize the impact of any suit on a company's reputation. ----- Technique tips Do create a comms plan that addresses all key stakeholders, internal and external. Prepare statements for each group with coordinated key messages Do have PR people work closely with company lawyers and outside counsel in planning the comms strategy Do train key spokespeople to deal with the media. A CEO, lawyer, or PR pro may be the right contact, depending on the severity of the issues involved Don't have company representatives make off-the-cuff comments to members of the media, customers, or other key stakeholders Don't disparage the person or persons suing the company. No one sympathizes with a corporate bully. Also, don't criticize a judge or jury Don't refuse to comment on a suit. That gives the impression that the company has something to hide

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