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When PR and Legal Strategies Clash

A recent episode of “The Good Wife” offers a highly entertaining look at crisis management inside a law firm and the tension between PR advice and legal counsel. A strategy session for a client whose tainted cheese has sickened dozens of schoolchildren erupts in war between the attorney, who wants to stonewall media calls, and a $60,000-a-month spinmeister (played to the hilt by Alan Cumming), who pushes for “the full Toyota.”

It’s over the top, but it illustrates the classic court of law/court of public opinion debate. Add social media, and the picture gets cloudier. Take the blogstorm around a cheeky ad for Pfizer’s Chapstick. Pfizer’s stilted response to critical comments and its legalistic web disclaimers had bloggers smacking their lips about a “social media death spiral.” It wasn’t that, but maybe there’s a good reason for lawyers not to be the voice of a brand’s Facebook page.

And, I don’t want to harp on the Penn State nightmare, but I’d be surprised if anyone other than lawyers crafted ex-President Graham Spanier’s terrible excuse for a public statement last week.

The job of legal counsel is to minimize liability. A PR counselor’s priority is to protect reputation, often by advocating  an apology PR tour from the top guy. Those goals can come into conflict where public disclosure is concerned. Yet there’s a growing need for PR and legal to learn to work together. So, how do we make it work?

Collaborate. There’s no reason to have lawyers drafting social media policy or controlling internal communications. A collaborative treatment of non-urgent communications and overall policy will always beat a unilateral approach. This means you have to get in the same room (or on the same call) and hash things out on a regular basis.

Involve PR early. A seasoned practitioner can help ward off trouble down the road, or at the very least articulate the risk involved in poor or non-existent communications to the corporation or brand. And if litigation is inevitable, a professional communicator or litigation PR expert can be an invaluable part of the team.

Look at public communication as a strategic tool. An offensive PR strategy can convince potential litigants that they’ve a weaker case than they thought. If properly handled, it might help influence public opinion in the event of a trial, — but only in concert with a skilled attorney.

Assess the image liability as well as the legal one. It’s all about risk. The risk of brand damage, customer anger, etc. is as real as the downside of legal action. Studies have shown that when a company is accused of wrongdoing in a suit, more than a third of the public believes that it is probably guilty. And far more (58% by one study) will think a company is guilty when it responds to charges of wrongdoing with a “no comment.”

Educate one another. Take it from me, PR professionals tend to see the attorney as “Dr. No,” with good reason. Yet we’re ignorant of the finer points of legal risk analysis and strategy. A corporate attorney, on the other hand, has many priorities that don’t include public reputation. Each side needs to be more open to the goals and priorities of the other, especially when the stakes are high.

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