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We PR people have creativity in our DNA. We think differently, are always looking for a news hook or way to jazz something up and make it different. It’s what makes what we’re pitching interesting to the news reporters, editors and photo journalists we need to work with.
But sometimes we run into client issues that require the input of legal counsel.
Just as we are creative and eschew boundaries, lawyers have strict parameters within which they are required to operate. Sometimes we are retained exclusively because of a legal issue, and a client wants PR help to accompany the anticipated legal action or public fallout. Usually these are crisis scenarios, but I work with one client that insists every public statement – right down to a tweet or facebook post – be scrutinized by their legal department. It’s a fire and ice pairing for sure, and it can make any PR person downright psychotic.
So how do you navigate legalities, and how do you counsel a client facing the harsh light of the legal system?
1. First things first. When dealing with a legal scenario, make sure to ask lots of questions. Unless you went to law school, there is (or should be) someone on the team with more knowledge of the law than you. So make sure to understand what it is you’re dealing with, and how to talk about the subject matter.
2. Work with counsel to provide counsel. Many lawyers fancy themselves PR people. After all, they went to graduate school to learn their trade, and you’re just some ex-reporter with a BA in English, right? I always try to establish a positive relationship with the lawyer on the team: he or she knows what you’re legally allowed to say; it’s your job to figure out how to say it effectively within the confines of the law. Working well with legal counsel will make your client’s life less complicated, too, and in the middle of a legal crisis, that’s exactly what they want: fewer complications.
3. Share your knowledge. Reporters are going to need you to help them understand what’s happening; you’ll earn goodwill with the press by being a resource for them and gain extra opportunity to advance your client’s position. When doing this, always define boundaries; reporters are generally happy to keep these explanatory kinds of conversations off the record or on background, as long as that’s defined up front.
4. Slow things down. Legal actions are processes that take time. Just like a crisis, you can’t jump to the end of a lawsuit all by yourself. Deal with the scenario in front of you, and anticipate the next step or two, plus alternate possibilities. But don’t try to go too far down the road. There are other forces at work here, and they’ll likely undo any sudden solutions you may try to enforce on the situation.
5. Win the War. When staring down the barrel of a subpoena or lawsuit, suddenly PR losses don’t seem quite that paramount to the client anymore. Legal losses cost real money, and can sometimes carry jailtime to boot. So put your client’s legal interests before their PR interests, just for the moment. Don’t mess with the law, especially the criminal courts. And judges can be especially irked by an overzealous PR campaign, primarily ones that make their lives – and their courtrooms – more complicated. If you need to suffer a PR loss to preserve your legal position, you need to do it. If you’re in the right, you’ll make up ground later.
6. Never back down. Just like the old prison joke (“Everyone in here is innocent, man”), you need to continue to tell your client’s story to anyone who will listen. If you win, be humble (see my earlier post on Casey Anthony’s lawyers’ less than humble victory lap). If you lose, work with counsel to explain why you disagree and when will be filing an appeal.
I’d love to hear about your experiences dealing with legal issues.