Saving Your Business: How Foul PR Can Ruin Your Legal Battle

Saving Your Business: How Foul PR Can Ruin Your Legal Battle

If you were not aware of him before, you definitely are aware of him now: Harvey Weinstein – who has been charged with rape, a criminal sex act, sexual abuse and sexual misconduct for cases involving two women – has been plastered all over the papers over the past several months. And even though innocent until proven guilty remains true, with more than 75 women accusing Weinstein of wrongdoing and sexual offences, it is hard to not hold an opinion towards this case. Now in the midst of the masses, you may not think your opinion towards such a public case may not affect much, but a collation of the same opinion causes a strong movement; after all, the #metoo movement rose to the surface by a group of voices.

But this movement was a positive after effect. What about the negative outcomes? Well, movie mogul Weinstein has nothing left of his company, and what remains is being sold for a mere $287 million (even though problems are amidst the process), while in 2015 they estimated the company value at $950 million[1]. Finding a buyer was tough in itself, but Weinstein has lost his entire legacy. So, we ponder: what can you do to save your company during litigation?

 

The power of thought

These opinions and its voice can shape society and its thoughts, and Weinstein’s lawyer very well knows the affect this can have on his client’s legal case. Earlier last month, he had expressed concern that potential jurors may have tainted predisposed ideas towards the case due to bad press.

PR Director Emily Rogers expands on how public opinion matters during litigation: “The power of public opinion is well recognised by the legal system: a barrister must not comment publicly during a case, juries must remain silent throughout, and are ‘protected’ from exposure to press or public opinion that could alter their decision-making process.

“Public opinion may nonetheless influence the outcome of a case on occasion. Although this is relatively rare, businesses can often go wrong in their handling of external communications during and after a case: Uber is fighting to rebuild its public image, not so much because of the outcome of its court cases, but as a result of how it is perceived by its public following legal action. Contrast this with Merlin, who behaved with dignity and empathy when faced with their own lawsuit – notwithstanding the substantial liability, and came out with far less damage to their brand as a result of their handling of the media.

“In the recent employment rights battle faced by Pimlico Plumbers, public opinion was not on Gary Smith’s side; a quick trawl on Twitter revealed a far from favourable assessment of him in the eyes of the public, who viewed him as avaricious and sly. His comment, when they lost the case, that it wasn’t ‘the end of the world’ did little to repair that damage.”

 

Bad PR vs good PR

So, with the media playing a huge part in legal cases, we ask: how does PR impact legal cases, and what does this mean for businesses involved?

We are all aware of bad PR: think how Volkswagen[2] “did a Ratner”. VW paid US$4.3 billion in civil and criminal penalties and the total cost of their actions was rumoured to be about $21bn, after it was revealed they gave false readings on exhaust emission levels on some 11 million vehicles. A bad PR move some had stated, believing that Chief Executive Matthais Müller should have not been in the position of being surrounded by a herd of journalists; some believed they should not have prolonged their responses to the public, as it resulted in them getting bad coverage for longer, arguing their slow reaction allowed their crisis to ‘spin out of control’; other PR experts believed disjointed responses worked in their favour, allowing VW to not say too much before they had a grasp on events themselves.

Confusing, right? There are so many options for handling PR when your company is facing legal action, and we know all too well the importance of it, as after all, no one wants to be in the position of Cambridge Analytica filing for bankruptcy. And in some cases, battling with litigation and fighting to save your customers can prove to be quite the challenge.

Keeping customers to keep business booming is vital. Neil McLeod MPRCA Head of Strategic Communications at The PHA Group gives a nugget of advice:

“Whether bad PR on its own can lose a case of course depends on what the case centres on. One thing to remember is that these days, very much every piece of PR output from a company appears online in some shape, which means it has a habit of sticking around forever and can be easily searched for.

“Therefore, poor or unguarded statements in the past, or handling of situations, can easily be found by court opponents as they seek to paint a picture of a company or individual in court, or its pattern of behaviour. This means having a joined up, solid and professional comms strategy throughout the course of the business year and not just when facing litigation is all important. Planning a comms strategy on the steps of the court is no use to anyone.

“Good public relations professionals should be able to advise not only on whether information or paperwork can be used, but whether it should be used. This of course has a damaging effect on companies or individuals involved, and extends to output on social media as well as the media in general. And of course, behaviour during court cases can not only do nothing to help the court’s view of a litigant, but also plays poorly in the eyes of the public, if the case is high-profile enough to get its attention.”

 

Do you need a PR specialist, as well as a lawyer?

One of the key points to remember is that during any legal case there is a correct way to go about using PR. Poor practice – particularly during a live case, be it criminal or civil – can have a number of negative outcomes, ranging from contempt issues which can halt to simply annoying the sitting judge. This would include trying to litigate through the media, or releasing statements and information which the court would frown upon.

“There are various things lawyers can do to prepare for negative media coverage resulting from litigating a high profile case. They would be sensible to speak to a media relations specialist – somebody that understands both the workings of the law, but also the media and the lengths that journalists may go to in order to report on a story”, speaks Rebecca Moffat, a former Solicitor and legal PR specialist.

“In the glare of a media scrum it can be difficult to remain calm, which is fundamental when it comes to delivering a press statement, answering questions or being interviewed aggressively. Media training can help with this; a good session will provide opportunities to be interviewed across a wide range of different scenarios whilst being recorded.

“Lawyers must also liaise closely with their client and their respective media relations team, and agree upon a media strategy – which they must also keep under review. This may include creating statements to deal with the various outcomes of the case in question, being clear about who will speak to the media, and if necessary placing limits upon what will be discussed.

“With the speed, impact and reach of social and online media, it is also really important that any media strategy integrates seamlessly across traditional, online and social media channels.”

 

Litigation PR is vital. Training to deal with the aggressive nature of eager journalists will help. It may not save all situations, as I am pretty sure those accused of acts similar to Weinstein may need a time machine to rectify their mistakes, but experts are needed to be able to control the situation for you, when you are too busy caught up in the litigative process. After all, emotions will be running high, and it only takes one simple sentence, tweet or comment to turn the world against you.

 

[1] https://metro.co.uk/2018/05/26/harvey-weinsteins-net-worth-much-dropped-7578879/

[2] https://www.thenational.ae/business/the-top-10-pr-disasters-in-history-1.51976