Kate Alexander* In the course of nearly 30 years of crisis work and issues management, we have successfully collaborated with numerous lawyers and legal advisers to help our clients communicate with media, staff, customers and other stakeholders. In our experience, sound legal advice is worth its weight in gold, and the objectives of a company’s legal counsel can be effectively supported by the strategic advice of a PR consultant.
As the discipline of legal PR takes its own form and becomes ever more important in the post-COVID era, here is our best advice to CEOs who work closely with legal counsel – in-house or outside the primary firm – and PR advisers on matters of interest to media:
1. ‘No Comment’ Does Say Something – And It May Not Be What You Want
We frequently do media training and refresher courses with clients to prepare them for interviews with journalists, and one piece of advice we like to give CEOs is to consider what you can say as an alternative to “no comment”.
This response may not have the intended effect of closing down media enquiry, and as PR advisers we always strive to protect you from inadvertently leaving space for speculation or misinformation. Even when the matter at hand is highly sensitive and confidential, it is usually possible to say why you cannot say more – such as that the case is before the courts, and the legal process must be respected. Audiences tend to be sympathetic to this position.
2. We Can Help You With a Plan For What You CAN Say
It is not unusual for legal cases to drag on for years, and meanwhile we want to preserve your reputation and leave you with clear air to run your business.
The sub judice reason is a valid one but will ideally be balanced with a more thorough explanation as appropriate – and sometimes there will be greater freedom to speak over time. Most importantly, we want to protect you by working with your lawyers so you are not being pushed to litigate a case through the media, and to effectively manage the leaks that can spring out of even the tightest of ships.
If you were our client, we would sit down with you and your legal counsel and work out a plan to deal with everything that might find its way into the public domain.
There may be the possibility of working with a judge to seal certain information and attach penalties to any breaches of confidentiality, and beyond this we would help you develop a strategy to address each key point. It is helpful to know ahead of time what you can say that doesn’t compromise the case but does protect the principals.
3. Not Everything Needs to be Attributed
A good rule of thumb is to avoid speaking to media off the record – but as with many other things, the exception proves the rule. Based on legal PR advice there may be instances where you will give a journalist deep background to inform them about an issue.
This is essential information that informs their reporting and keeps them on the right track but is not attributable to you or anyone in your team. It is a standard media practice, particularly in areas of sensitivity, and journalists are trained to respect and protect their sources.
4. Good Media Relationships Are of Consummate Value
Journalists have an important job to do and that takes precedence, but over time it is possible to build a relationship of trust and mutual respect with media folk who take the time to understand your business, industry and issues.
The COVID era has taught us that no person or business is untouchable. We are all here through a combination of hard work, luck and privilege, and consumer trust . .
As PR advisers we help clients make and honour media agreements that serve their business, and over time these relationships can ensure consistent, fair and accurate representation of relevant matters in media reporting, which typically confers a much wider benefit than to just one company.
5. Sound Legal PR Respects the Social Licence to Operate
The COVID era has taught us that no person or business is untouchable. We are all here through a combination of hard work, luck and privilege, and consumer trust – and as we have seen, people can withdraw their support at any time.
Something damaging may emerge in media or the zeitgeist about your business or industry that is unfair, inaccurate or distorted, but in the minds of some consumers, smoke is fire. Audiences can decide whether a business survives or comes back from a crisis, so we help clients work with legal advice while putting a human face on the situation.
6. Legal Advice Takes Precedence
The world of legal PR is one of collaboration where lawyers have a slight head start. In some ways media coverage is more like the spirit than the letter of the law, because there is often not sufficient space or time to explain the full picture in all the detail we would like, but from our perspective, when legal advice intersects with the PR strategy, the legal view needs to take the lead.
That way the accurate legal position is on the record and we can support to correct any misinformation and present your business fairly and favourably. Though the process can sometimes take a little longer than everyone would prefer, in the end the right legal result is a win for all parties.
Crisis and legal consultant, Kate Alexander is a former broadcast journalist with more than 28 years’ public relations experience in New Zealand, the United States and South Africa. Possessing strong finance and corporate public relations skills and media savvy she has been recognised globally for her work in the area of crisis communications and issue management and founded her own PR business, AlexanderPR, in New Zealand in 2005.