*Story Originally Posted in the American Bar Association's Law Trends and News, Fall 2009, Vol. 6, No. 1. Today’s legal market demands a broad range of business solutions lawyers can provide their clients. A strategic communications plan can prove to be an extremely helpful tool law firms can provide their clients. For example, in today’s 24/7 media culture, companies lack access to and control over the media who cover their industry and to the people that talk about them online.
In addition, businesses often find themselves navigating a complex environment that requires dealing simultaneously with litigation, governmental and regulatory actions, media scrutiny, and public perception. Oftentimes business strategy demands a multidisciplinary approach of legal action, public relations, and government relations. Knowing where these issues converge can help protect your reputation and enhance your position in the marketplace. For example, new court rules were recently unveiled in Michigan directing jurors not to Twitter about the case before them or to turn to the Internet for information beyond that which was presented to them in the court. Social media is becoming more than a tool for us to use to stay in touch with friends: it is becoming a new area to look out for our clients' interests and/or a new medium to promote our practice.
Also, in just seven months, Congress has passed a number of key bills that have been enacted by the president, including the economic stimulus package, expansion of SCHIP, Pentagon acquisition reforms, and other key reforms. Congress is in the midst of tackling a number of difficult issues, including energy and climate legislation, health care reform, FY 2010 appropriations, the reauthorization of the transportation bill, financial regulation, food safety, and immigration reform—all of which will affect our legal practice.
As a result, attorneys should extend their services beyond the courtroom and into the court of public opinion or legislature. If attorneys will not provide such services, then they should build strategic partnerships with public relations firms and/or lobbyists. To meet the needs of today’s businesses, lawyers will need skilled advice regarding how to position their clients before the media or in front of the legislature, while legally protecting their clients.
For example, seeking PR counsel is an important aspect of representing clients in high-profile cases. Even if the issue is a small matter, there is no way we can tell how public opinion can or will shape the outcome of a case. Therefore, in engaging PR counsel:
Have the lawyer retain the PR firm as opposed to your client directly, to try to preserve attorney-client privilege;
The PR counsel should consult with the client only in the presence of an attorney and first talk things over with the attorney to seek their support and buy-in for the PR strategy.
Once a PR firm is engaged, they will (depending on the strategy):
Asses the situation, review any media to date;
Create key messages;
Create talking points for key audiences including, staff, vendors, clients, and the media;
Using the key messages, educate and sensitize the media to mitigate damage or control the story;
Facilitate interviews; and
Diligently work to preserve and protect your client’s image in the public eye.
“An attorney’s duties do not begin inside the courtroom door. He or she cannot ignore the practical implications of a legal proceeding for the client.” SeeGentile v. State Bar of Nevada (Kennedy opinion) 510 U.S. 1030, 1043 (1991). Just as an attorney may recommend a plea bargain or civil settlement to avoid the adverse consequences of a possible loss after trial, so too an attorney may take reasonable steps to defend a client’s reputation in the court of public opinion
In today’s fast-paced environment, where it may take years to build up one’s reputation and only seconds to destroy it, a lawyer’s role as advocate extends to managing his or her clients’ reputations inside and out of the courtroom.
Daniel Cherrin, an attorney, is the former communications director/press secretary for Detroit and to Detroit Mayor Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr. He is now president of North Coast Strategies, which provides cutting-edge practical advice where government action or inaction, litigation vulnerability, or complex regulatory requirements will impact your reputation and bottom line. You can reach Cherrin at dcherrin@NorthCoastStrategies.com or 313-300-0932.