It’s a typical perception that shrouds both professions.
The truth is, of course, that the practice of law and public relations are sometimes related but very different disciplines, and a dynamic tension results when they are thrust into the same ring. Succeeding in a court of law and prevailing in the court of public opinion require different skills and tactics that often put the two masteries at odds. A strong legal tactic can be disastrous for public relations and vice versa.
For example, William Bulger’s decision to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination before a congressional committee may have been wise from a legal perspective, but the public’s view is that only Mafia kingpins and other guilty crooks utilize the option.
Lawyers nearly always prevail in these disputes between PR and legal tactics because, along with normally being paid more, the lawyer can better illustrate the potential repercussions and frighten the client with possible penalties. But it doesn’t have to work that way. I once was involved in a case of a company that was facing a potentially huge liability as a result of the death of a child who used one of its products. Like many of his brethren, the attorney in the case, a real Denny Crane-type character, believed that PR people are merely facilitators who should obediently carry out whatever press strategy he devised.
In this case, the strategy was to say and do nothing. The theory was that if you say nothing, you say nothing wrong and thus will limit further liability. But the press was pouncing on the company, portraying it as careless and flagrantly violating safety rules.
The truth was just the opposite. The president of the company, in fact, had a long record of calling for increased regulation, safety and oversight of his industry, information that I wanted to get into the hands of the press.
The attorney nixed that notion, and every story about the incident contained a “no comment” from our side.
The attorney prevailed in court, though, and successfully beat back every lawsuit, civil and criminal complaint. The company, however, went bankrupt, its name and reputation destroyed as it had become synonymous with negligence and death.
The attorney celebrated victory — even as his client went down in a public defeat.
Could there have been a different result? Could the company have won in both courts — successfully fighting the charges and preserving its good name? I think so. But it would have required major mindset changes on the part of the attorneys, and maybe the PR practitioner as well.
First of all, the attorneys would have needed to accept a greater degree of risk than they’re normally used to. Attorneys by nature and training are risk averse, and throwing a PR strategy into the mix just seems like an invitation for greater risk and liability.
But a carefully planned, well-executed strategy, with an experienced PR practitioner fully briefed and cognizant of the inherent risks, should be able to minimize the downside associated with a combined legal/PR plan.
Secondly — and this might be an even harder element for some attorneys to accept — a good PR practitioner knows best how the media will respond and how it will play or slant or treat a story. I tell my clients: “Don’t let your lawyers run your PR strategy,” and I tell my students and associates: “The media are predictable and our ability to foresee how the media will behave gives us an incredible advantage when trying to influence public opinion.”
Another couple of war stories: I once prepared a team of attorneys for an interview with a reporter about controversial litigation they had filed, organizing a series of sample questions and responses for likely lines of inquiry. After the reporter left, one of the attorneys turned to me and asked if I had given her an advance copy of the questions.
Of course I hadn’t, but he was amazed that the reporter had not only asked every question on our prepared list, but very nearly in the same order to boot.
In another case, I was summoned to an emergency meeting with attorneys for a company that had just settled a case with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration following the accidental death of one of its workers.
The lawyers wanted to prepare for what they were certain was going to be maximum media exposure — front page headlines, top of the hour TV news — rehashing the nearly two-year-old incident and highlighting the fine imposed by OSHA. It would again bathe the company in a negative light, and we needed a strategy to deal with it.
But when I read the OSHA finding, I doubted the story would even make the papers. When I told them that, the attorneys and company executives looked at me like I was nuts. Inside their solipsistic vortex they felt they were sitting on something incredibly important and newsworthy (and the perquisite billable hours didn’t hurt either). They weren’t.
The Boston Globe ignored the story entirely and the Boson Herald mentioned the fine in a column of brief items.
I don’t recount these stories to illustrate how smart I am but to show how a knowledgeable, experienced PR practitioner can better anticipate the media’s reactions and how that skill can fit with and support a company’s legal strategy.
Too often, attorneys and other professionals simply believe that PR practitioners are publicity mavens eager to earn headlines and TV appearances for their client, and maybe for themselves. Their job, the attorneys think, is to dampen those efforts.
They also believe that PR people can be too cozy with the media, and that familiarity can be a liability in cases that require extreme confidentiality and sensitivity. And some believe PR people simply aren’t professionals at all.
Those are valid concerns, but they are ones that make the case for choosing experienced PR firms or individuals with good track records of success. The best PR people are as skilled and tactical as an attorney — though they might not have a certificate on the wall that purports to show it — and can devise a plan to support the best legal strategy and a successful battle in the court of public opinion.
Originally published Thu, January 19, 2012 in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly