You have developed a trial strategy, done extensive research, lined up expert witnesses and expect to prevail in court. But before you ever see a courtroom, your company's case may be tried before millions of people in the news media. There is an increased demand among reporters for story ideas and a growing number of attorneys willing to take their client's case to the media before it ever reaches the courtroom.
Plaintiff's attorneys have always worked closely with journalists, many hire public relations professionals to assist them. One prominent Dallas plaintiff's attorney noted that a television expose before trial helps in the settlement process. Corporations are learning, however, that a strategic public relations program can mount a strong counter-attack against trial by the media. In most cases, the media is willing to report your side of the story or may even decide that there is no story, if your company responds in a timely manner.
The media turns to plaintiff's attorneys for story ideas more often than most people realize. Our research shows that CBS's 60 Minutes uses information provided by attorneys at least once a month for its investigative stories. Programs such as Dateline NBC, 48 Hours, PrimeTime Live and Inside Edition also depend on legal sources for a large number of their investigative stories.
The threat of prolonged media attention is often enough to make company executives give up their day in court and settle a case. One major corporation settled with a plaintiff after 60 Minutes requested permission to cover a trial involving the firm.
The victims of such stories are not fly-by-night companies operating from post office boxes. Often, they are major corporations with reputations for quality service and ethical business conduct. Generating negative publicity about the target of a lawsuit is often considered an essential element in legal strategy.
The economic changes in broadcasting have created more outlets for these stories than ever before. When 60 Minutes debuted on CBS in 1968, it was the only news magazine on network television. When the program proved hugely profitable, other networks and independent program syndicators jumped on the news magazine bandwagon. In addition to 60 Minutes, such programs as 20/20, PrimeTime Live and Dateline NBC are regulars among Nielsen's top-rated and most profitable network programs. According to Newsweek Magazine Dateline NBC accounted for 40 percent of NBC News' $100 million dollar profit last year. NBC recently announced that it is expanding the Dateline program to Sunday nights. With so much air time to fill, news magazine staff reporters and producers must compete for new and interesting stories amongst themselves as well as with their own evening newscasts and morning news programs.
What attracts the reporters and producers to these stories? They often involve a victim seemingly wronged by a large company : David vs. Goliath. This theme is a guaranteed attention grabber likely to strike a chord with viewers. Secondly, attorneys present the busy producer or reporter with a complete package : angry, motivated victims, extensive research and discovery, expert witnesses and an articulate advocate.
By the time the target is formally asked for a comment, there is virtually no time for them to develop a carefully constructed response that takes into account the company's legal strategy and provides time for input from attorneys, public relations professionals and executives. Opposing counsel is counting on the fact that busy attorneys and executives need time to respond to the media. Their hope is that a reporter's tight deadline will put the corporation at a disadvantage, resulting in a poor response or none at all.
An example of this strategy was recently reported on the CBS Evening News. A corporation was being sued for $50 million by a Memphis woman who said the corporation drove her husband to suicide because it allowed him to gamble beyond his means. The corporation chose to make no comment. A rival company's spokesperson stated, on the air, that the competing corporation could be at fault and that the woman may have a case. By not commenting, the company being sued appears irresponsible and unconcerned for its patrons.
Today, there is a growing trend toward the development of a specific media relations plan when attorneys and corporate executives believe a lawsuit is the likely outcome of a business or employment dispute. These plans should be developed before the suit is filed, because media coverage often begins before the target of the suit has been served with a copy of the document. Yet, a recent study showed that most crisis situations are not a surprise to corporate management or their legal counsel. The study showed that 86 percent of crisis situations are known to management long before they reach the media. This means there is plenty of time to prepare a response to media inquiries without jeopardizing the company's legal position or strategy.