Marketing can make or break a company and so to ensure you stay afloat in competitive times, hiring a specialist PR or marketing team is vital, especially during lengthy, and possibly controversial litigation proceeds. Lawyer Monthly hear from Stuart Leach who has combined his involvement in advertising with his experience as a barrister, to guide his client’s reputation through litigation and disputes.
With experience in marketing communications and in the legal sector, can you expand on how public relations can easily impact a legal case?
The first point to remember is that it is a major error to deal with a piece of litigation without giving any thought as to how it is going to be reported, even if you think it might not be. The problem being that whatever is reported sticks around forever and a day, so being able to manage what is said about your dispute is vital. For example, five years down the track you could be involved in a deal and those carrying out due diligence on you and your business might find on Google page one a report from your case that is based on your opponent’s version of events. That could cost a lot of money. So negative PR can have a dramatic effect on the after effects of a case.
When companies are undergoing a lengthy case, is it better for them to stay quiet, or speak and remain public during their legal proceedings?
Each case is different, however, if you believe your case is going to be in the public domain there is a huge advantage in having your narrative out first and trying to control the way that a case is reported. It is very often the case that clients are reticent about going out to the public, in fact most of our clients would rather that nothing was ever said about them, but the bottom line is if it is going to be in the media, don’t wait for it to happen. If you sit and wait, it’s quite likely that the media will contact the other side, in which case the first thing they hear about the case regarding you, is negative. Having said that, there are times when it is better to wait, but if you do, you should make sure you have a very strong rebuttal strategy in place to push back against any attacks.
How can companies maintain their reputation during litigation?
The first thing is to understand where the risks lie, and a great deal of our work is spent on risk analysis. Before people embark upon litigation or before they respond to a claim being filed, it is worth examining and identifying all the vulnerabilities. What are the risks, what could come out? They may not affect the legal issue and you may end up with success in court, but if you suffer significant reputation damage in the process you could lose a great deal more than you win.
So, the start point is to understand what the risks are. When you understand these, you can then apply your mind to how you manage them and what communications should be used, what the messaging should be, to whom, and via what channels. Identify the key stakeholders. You may not need to communicate with the world at large. Ask who are the people you need to keep on side? The point being that when a dispute is over, you need to be seen by the people who matter such as employees, investors, regulators – as either the right winner or the wronged loser. Start with the risk analysis, look at the messaging, and look at whom you are going to communicate with, before deciding if you go proactive or adopt a rebuttal strategy.
Further from this, how can they enhance their reputation?
Every opportunity to communicate should, in my view, be looked at as an opportunity to enhance reputation. Even when being on the wrong side of a lot of negative publicity in a piece of litigation, how you deal with it can speak volumes. It may well be that there is no defence to what’s been thrown at you but the way you handle that position and look to move on is what will allow you to successfully move on when the dispute is over. The key is to prevent it from becoming a crisis and thereby establish a base from which to move forward once the dispute is over.
You have worked on some of the biggest cases in London; can you share how you ensured you gained a positive outcome in a high-pressured environment?
We are involved in something now that involves an individual who has, with no evidence having been found against him at all and having been subject to extensive investigations, been excluded from office. There has been no real engagement from the people excluding him. We were able to put his story, his case, out into the public domain in a high-profile publication which was spread via the internet and our digital activity and it immediately got the attention of important influencers around the dispute. That was one specific piece of communication that broke the deadlock in a piece of litigation. A different example of how communications can make a difference is in the area of enforcement. It is very clear from experience that whilst people will use all sorts of legal chicanery to avoid paying a Court Order, the interest of the media as to why they won’t pay is extremely motivating!
Can you give a top tip to our aspiring lawyers?
Every aspiring young lawyer should understand that communications are a key part of any dispute. When initially meeting the client, they should be thinking about what the reputation risks are and how these can be managed. Arguably in the world we now inhabit, to not think of these and embark on litigation in a vacuum, might one day be considered negligent if it leads to an avoidable but predictable loss. They should seek the advice of a specialist in the area in the same way they obtain the advice of specialist Counsel on the legal issues. There are a limited number of specialist consultancies, although there are many PR firms operating in the legal area. What is important to remember is that the reputation issues around disputes requires much more than just PR. PR is just one tool but what is needed to fully manage all the reputation threats that are part of a dispute is a new type of adviser – one that fully understands litigation because they have litigated, but who also has the communication skills to turn that legal experience into a powerful additional tool during litigation.
This article appeared in Lawyer Monthly on the 30th November 2018.