Crisis PR – When it comes to legal cases, how do you handle PR?
Litigation is a fact of business or corporate life – and can represent a reputational PR issue.
The very nature of doing business deals, particularly where contracts are involved, does mean that sometimes, parties can fall into dispute with each other.
Figures released in 2014 showed the number of cases at the Commercial Court – the division at London’s High Court which handles disputes between companies – had risen.
Some 1,353 cases were launched in the previous 12 months compared with 1,167 in 2012.
The number of cases was seen to rise in the economic downturn, with one reason given that companies adopt a tougher approach when it comes to business deals which have gone wrong than in times of prosperity.
Whether suing or being sued, litigation has a strong Public Relations element.
It means PR consultants can become, at times, as important as the legal team.
The need for PR
The main reason is that courts in the UK are public. That means certain documents, hearings and trials are open to journalists to report on and make stories out of.
For large companies which the media like to focus on, being involved in a trial can bring further press attention.
A particularly unique or interesting case, if it comes onto the radar of the court reporters who operate at the High Court, can also get picked up.
But smaller companies, too, need to be aware of the PR implications as trade magazines and various internet sites can also carry interesting court copy.
This means various elements of a business’ dealings are consumed by the reading public, and this could mean they are digesting information about an alleged breach of contract, breach of confidentiality or a consumer issue.
This means reputation management PR is incredibly important.
What your PR should be doing for you
Hoping no one will write about your legal case is not an option. Being prepared is a necessity.
Even if you are the claimant (i.e. the party suing the defendant) there are reputational issues to manage with a solid communications plan which takes into account the various rules and stages of the court process.
Magnus Boyd, a Partner at City law firm Hill Dickinson, tells PHA Insights: “The legal strategy must always sit within the broader communications context of reputation management for the client.
“Lawyers are often tempted to say as little as possible through the legal process and fail to recognise the harm that silence can cause. Often it is the lack of information that convicts a business in the public eye rather than the legal process.
“Too often PRs feel uncomfortable about managing the communications surrounding litigation and yet their role can be vital to the successful outcome of the litigation.
“But their input is incredibly important to the wider picture and company should look to its PR consultants to support it in various ways at this difficult time.”
While the legal team may wish to stay silent throughout, a business’s PRs need to have a communications plan firmly in place. You need to know what to say, what you can say, and when is the best time to say it.
Communications cannot help a company win the case, but it can help them during the process and in dealing with the media and other stakeholders.
By way of a simple check-list, a business entering litigation or even notified that it may be something they will need to deal with in the near future, should be asking the following questions:
- What are the PR implications of the court action? Which journalists will be interested and how will it affect day-to-day business?
- Is the company prepared to deal with the media direct or do we need external help? Do your existing or in-house PRs have the necessary experience?
- Are my existing or new PR advisers aware and have they been put in touch with the legal team? They should be engaged from the earliest stage possible in order to be able to analyse the risk and put in place a communications plan.
- If we lose, what do we say? If we win, what do we say and more importantly, how do we say it, who says it and where do we say it?
- Do you need media training for after the trial and are you confident with the general process?
- What are the next steps following the end of the case?
The process can be quite a complicated journey but it is one which Public Relations can help with.
Consistency of message from the start of the litigation all the way to trial is vital which is why PR support is vital at every stage of the process.
One key point to remember is if a piece of PR litigation is executed with know-how and skill, you can still win the PR war even when the legal battle has been lost.