Winning the PR Battle – Without Losing the War of Words

Julie Talenfeld-Website Headshot

Legal public relations is complex. If an attorney or law firm is looking for a strategy to compete in the court of public opinion, Washington, D.C., is providing a mixed model.

Debates – like those over the border wall, immigration reform, the shutdown, political and SCOTUS nominations, and the ongoing investigation into Russian involvement in the election – have grown caustic, accusatory, and very public.

Opposing forces flood airwaves and newsfeeds with statements, press conferences, and announcements, as much deriding the opposition as supporting their side. What’s worse, these public battles often do little to sway opinion. They instead harden already-held positions. Such debates about issues of crisis can do a disservice when aired in tit-for-tat fashion.

Now, imagine a case or dispute involving your law firm has crept its way into the public forum. It could be a high-profile case, involve a well-known or celebrity defendant, or be of great public concern, like the environment, an government project, or lawsuit over a policy issue that has divided public opinion.

It could be malfeasance at or the dissolution of a law firm itself. The situation is acrimonious, the partners or parties have flung accusations at one another, and it’s become the stuff of theater – all played out in the court of public opinion.

The opportunity is there to take one of at least two paths. The parties can let their furor rage in the media. Or they can seek a less-public resolution.

What have recent lessons from the nation’s capital shown us about handling such disputes or crises? Consider these tips as a primer on litigation communications…

Pick your battles. Not all battles need become wars and not all disputes about public matters require the sides advance their positions publicly. One example is Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Over the course of its investigation, the Special Counsel’s office has issued almost no public statements. Yet, when BuzzFeed reported news about alleged instructions given by President Trump to his attorney, Michael Cohen, the Special Counsel issued a 28-word refutation. That was it. Lesson learned: Focus on your job at hand. Respond directly only when necessary. Return to your job.

Will you be first to fire? If your case seems worthy of public discourse, should you lob the first statement? Media relations professionals have a saying: “Get and stay ahead of the story.” If you’re trying a case with a public presence, the lack of any response or position on your part will put you at a disadvantage. To paraphrase the carpenter, think twice, move once.

But they fired first. So all had been quiet until your opposition in a case or situation decided to take to the lectern and air their side. Is a response warranted? Not always. One example: was a response unnecessary when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer shared a lectern after President Trump made his Oval Office address regarding the border wall? Some argue the President’s address aired nothing new, so a response did little to advance the cause and even made the response appear weak in tone and intent.

Beware grandstanding. Shirt pressed? Tie knot tight and centered? Cameras in a row? Check. For some publicity-seeking attorneys, the media event is a chance not only to support the case, but to showcase the personal brand. Gratuitous grandstanding, however, may not only demean the attorney or trade. It may weaken the argument. If you decide the event is warranted, work with a professional publicist to ensure the venue, staging, and message weaken neither your case or your brand. This case will fade. Will your name?

Don’t run afoul of the law. Bar rules and orders from the bench can place limits on how much either side can say outside the courtroom. In the heat of the moment, especially when egged on by a finding or statement from opposing counsel, stay cool. Make sure your statements are within the established bounds.

Just because there’s a microphone before you doesn’t mean you have to speak into it. Litigation communications requires the calm resolve to speak only in support of your case – so you don’t damage your case or your brand.

 

Julie Talenfeld is the president of BoardroomPR, one of Florida’s largest integrated marketing agencies. She can be reached at jtalenfeld@boardroompr.com

 

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