He was lamenting the fact that his organisation had just taken another expensive legal hammering from a semi-public figure claiming heavy compensation for the publication of a damaging and unfair piece of commentary on his professional and personal life.
The defeat, at the hands of heavily fee-driven lawyers, cost his organisation not far short of £500,000. The spoils of victory for the individual involved, after a year of anxiety at the real possibility of losing an equivalent sum, were minuscule compared to the recovery of enormous legal costs.
With hindsight, both sides acknowledged that the problem could have been sorted out by a sensible dialogue brokered by that ‘good guy PR’ – with lawyers on hand only as a last resort.
This is a view increasingly shared at high levels across the media and among clients. The opportunity for accomplished PROs to take the lead in reputation management by capitalising on the media’s need to compromise some of its more visceral instincts is immense.
Incidentally, there is nothing altruistic in this desire for compromise. It is borne simply of shrinking profit margins and the burgeoning costs of defending excessive stories against a growing weight of law impinging on the press.
I have been involved in numerous instances where a measure of accommodation has been reached prior to publication of potentially hostile and damaging stories for clients. Outcomes have reinforced the fact that satisfactory compromises are achievable, whereby the media gets a story and the client’s reputation is protected. In some instances their reputation is enhanced.
Agreements reached with senior media figures can range from the complete withdrawal of a story because of potential legal action, to the replacement of a hostile story with a more favourable one. Trade-offs can be done involving the publication of first-person pieces written by the client, which are subject to full approval prior to publication. Favourable pictures can be traded for ones that tend to traduce the subject.
Of course, the media remains a tough and dangerous beast capable of inflicting immense and often terminal damage to reputation. Not for nothing does the old maxim persist that no-one should pick a fight with the owner of a barrel of ink.
But trying to resolve matters through post-publication legal action – when the damage is already done in print or broadcast – is risky, expensive and uncertain. Far better to bring the ‘PR good guy’ early to broker the deal.
Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior newspaper executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.