Some people believe the best defense against these tactics is to simply refuse to comment when the media calls. This is often the wrong approach. Negative publicity can hurt your client’s relationships with consumers, lenders, regulators and other important constituencies within and outside the company. Prevailing in court can be an empty victory if negative publicity costs your client their company or their job. A more effective strategy is to prepare a response that is in keeping with your legal strategy. This protects your client’s reputation in the marketplace while the case moves through the legal system.
Preparing Your Defense
How can a company prepare itself for a call from the news media? How does it counter an opponent who wants to try his case in the media? The answer; have a crisis communications plan in place that empowers public relations and legal counsel to anticipate issues and respond quickly and effectively.
Develop and implement a crisis plan before a situation is brought to the media's attention.
First, the crisis team must be established (typically attorneys, public relations professionals and key executives make up the team), a plan created and procedures and policies delegated. Team members must have open and clear lines of communication between each other and understand the other’s role in a crisis. The plan should also be exercised periodically to iron out potential flaws. By doing this, those involved will understand the plan's objective and will be able to respond quickly and appropriately to media questions when the "real thing" happens.
Install early warning systems throughout the company.
Instruct your legal counsel, human resource director and other company managers to report problems or potentially litigious situations to the crisis team. If these employees understand their responsibilities and the objectives of the plan, they can warn the team of what may be on the way, and responses can be formulated before the situation is introduced to the media.
The plan must recognize that technology speeds up the process. Answers must be delivered quickly and crisply via the same media.
Attorneys understand how to use a satellite feed to beam a press conference to reporters and journalists worldwide in a matter of minutes. The company’s answer must be distributed just as quickly. However, a make-shift response will look second-rate in light of the plaintiff attorney’s meticulously planned media event. There is not enough time in today’s world to formulate a reply in a week, or for that matter, a day. By practicing and following the plan’s procedures, team members will know the things they need to do and can reply within hours with a well thought-out response to the allegations aired in the press.
Public relations counsel must not over step its bounds.
Crisis communications plans should address all possible options and ramifications, and clearly outline the responsibilities of company executives and legal counsel. If this is not done and a hurried release is disseminated with incorrect information, or a misstatement is made, the legal consequences could be severe. It is the spokesperson’s responsibility to ensure that all outgoing releases, statements and documents have been cleared by the appropriate people on the crisis communications team.
Set guideposts throughout the lawsuit for releasing information to the media.
Most lawsuits follow predictable scenarios. Cover all options -- it is best to have press releases prepared for every possible direction the case may take. Be proactive and research cases similar to your company's. What mistakes did other companies make? What parts of the litigation did the media write about? Is there a point in the case where the media’s attention was piqued? With some thoughtful preparation, your team will be ready to tackle any situation during the company's litigation.
Also, keep in mind that other interest groups may view your precarious legal situation as an opportunity to publicize their agendas. Is your company’s union contract coming up for renewal? Union bosses may push their interests to the forefront in hopes that you will settle quickly and favorably with them, rather than fight a two-front war in the media. Be prepared for everything.
Even with tort reform discussions, there is little chance of influencing the economics of this trend in television. Reporters and producers will continue to look for "hot scoops" that can lead to blockbuster stories and attorneys will still find ways to present their client’s cases to the media. The potential payoffs on both sides are too huge for them to stop. Also, the trend suggests more talk shows and news magazine shows are on the way - meaning more outlets for potential stories.