Litigation public relations is the management of the communication process during the course of any legal dispute or adjudicatory processing so as to affect the outcome or its impact on the client’s overall reputation (Haggerty, 2003).
Litigants and Law Firms have always used the media to get their side of the story across and the practice of Litigation PR originally evolved out of crisis communications in the early 1980s. One of the most famous Litigation Law Practitioners is Alan Hilburg who represented U.S. Tobacco in the well documented Marsee case. The need for Litigation PR has grown tremendously as media coverage of court cases and the law has increased. Usually the two parties to a lawsuit have important interests to defend that expand way beyond legal concerns. Negative publicity about a corporation can cause damage to the overall reputation that even a courtroom win may never salvage. Whether civil or criminal, one cannot underestimate the impact of negative publicity on public opinion in corporate and institutional legal cases.
The Basic Concept of Litigation Public Relations
1. Litigation PR is to influence the outcome of the court case by encouraging early or favourable settlement or by pressuring the prosecution into bringing lesser or no charges (Haggerty, 2003).
2. Litigation PR is to protect the client’s reputation before and during the trial. In this regard, Litigation PR is akin to Reputation Management. Reputation Management is about managing public perception of an organisation or individual. It is about attitude toward the individual and not knowledge itself. An essential aspect of Reputation Management is influencing attitude about the individual and corporation, which can encourage positive activation to the benefit of the organisation (Haywood, 2002).
As a discipline Litigation PR is needed for both parties because the media will convey an inherent bias in favour of either the plaintiff or the prosecutor. Whenever allegations are made public, the media tend to portray cases very much in terms of the traditional victim versus villain and/or David versus Goliath stories. News coverage frequently leads with the plaintiff or prosecutor’s allegations and if a defendant’s responses are included at all, they only appear well into the article. Therefore, the defendant is often forced on the defensive. In these situations, working with the media to create more balanced, accurate, and less sensational coverage of a lawsuit is a necessary element in defending high profile clients.
In taking on a case for either party, your PR Practitioner will look to achieve the following objectives:
• Counteract and respond to negative publicity.
• Make the client’s viewpoint known clearly.
• Ensure balanced media coverage by providing the counter argument in a case.
• Help the media and the public understand complex legal issues through delivering concise key messages.
• Defuse an often hostile and inflammatory environment.
• Help resolve conflict and facilitate channels of communication.
The first step is to establish credibility with the media as an information source, the next is to control the flow of information so the right message is heard. The third step is to develop the key messages in a manner that supports the client’s position.
Differences between Litigation PR and General Public Relations
1. Litigation PR is highly dependent on the media. Although the practice of PR involves far more than just media communication, Litigation PR remains dependent on the media. At a time when society is growing more litigious, the media focuses and in fact seeks out publicly filed lawsuits. It is important your Litigation PR Practitioner knows how to pre-empt adverse publicity that could impact the entire strategy of a legal case.
2. Because typical public relations campaign strategies and tactics may not be appropriate and may even be harmful at certain times during a lawsuit, the legal strategy must follow due legal process.
3. Litigation PR is more regulated so as not to prejudice the legal process.
4. Litigation PR is directed with emphasis on one-way communication. The goal of Litigation PR is to reinforce the legal strategy and theory of the case to ensure a win. Given that the law is adversarial in nature, a Litigation Publicist will always seek to create a win-lose situation to reduce damage to the client’s credibility and reputation.
Why engage a Litigation PR Practitioner
Litigation PR is highly strategic and requires experience, knowledge of the law and a close working relationship with the client’s legal team. Unlike traditional Public Relations, often the objective in Litigation PR is to control the information flow to the media and to pre-empt the opponent’s next move. Lack of co-operation and communication can lead to the most solid case derailing which will ultimately be costly for the client and may lose them their business and reputation. Litigation PR should be seen as part of sound brand management in protecting underlying brand value for the long term at times of crisis.
Good reads to understand Litigation PR:
Haywood, R. (2002). ‘Managing your Reputation’: How to plan Public Relations to build and protect the organization’s most powerful asset (2nd ed.). London: Hogan Page.
Haggerty, J. F. (2003). ‘In the Court of Public Opinion’: Winning your Case with Public Relations. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Author: Sabine Raabe has provided Litigation PR support on high profile cases, including class actions, employment disputes and consumer rights.