By Adrian Ryan - CoFactor Managing Partner; and communication and reputation management specialist
Navigating a public, high-stakes legal matter requires a constant, careful balance of competing priorities.
Most parties to legal action have important interests that extend beyond legal concerns. Even if a litigant wins the case in court, negative publicity about them can cause serious reputational damage, at times with devastating consequences for the organisation, its board or executives. Therefore, parties to civil or criminal cases, can ill-afford to ignore the impact of negative publicity on public opinion.
What is Litigation Communications?
Litigation communications, also known as litigation PR, is a highly specialized field of public relations. It involves managing the communication process during the course of legal disputes or adjudicatory processes to support the client’s legal position and protect their reputation.
Litigation communications speciality was developed recognising that during legal disputes, traditional PR techniques – including crisis communication – were not providing the desired results. The need for litigation communications has grown significantly as media coverage of court cases and the law has increased.
Effective litigation communications pursues two key objectives:
- first, to influence the outcome of the legal matter to the advantage of the client by, for example, encouraging early or favorable settlement; and/or
- second, protect the client's reputation before and during the trial, managing reputation and the public perception of an organisation or individual.
Why is Litigation Communications so important?
There is considerable focus now on companies and executives involved in civil and criminal cases and prominent regulatory investigations. Legal and regulatory actions of all types and sizes are regularly big news in business, trade, and general interest media.
Moreover, communications outside the courtroom to the media and other key stakeholders can be tricky, particularly when a company is fighting on multiple fronts and anything said in one forum can have implications in another.
Time and time again we see litigants bury their head in the sand under the misconception that the best public response is ‘no comment’, ‘the bad press will pass’ or there is no way to influence media coverage of the issue. This is rarely the answer and can often be disastrous.
Litigants that deploy an effective communication strategy and prioritise their external stakeholders, better weather the storm and emerge with a healthier reputation when navigating a public, high-stakes legal matter.
Moreover, the vast majority of legal actions in Australia never progress to a final hearing/trial. Thus, the court of public opinion is often the only forum where guilt or innocence is ultimately assigned.
In addition to this, the way a legal case is managed publicly can have a significant impact on the perspectives and negotiating position of the parties when they eventually reach the settlement table. For example, if a defendant in civil litigation has been publicly battered in the media for months, that party’s openness to a settlement will be far different than if such public criticism had been avoided.
Litigation communication on the part of defendants can be especially important given media focus on plaintiffs and prosecutors. When allegations are made public, the media tends to cast the lawsuit in terms of ‘victim-vs-villain’. Stories routinely lead with the plaintiff or prosecutor’s allegations. If the defendant's responses are included, they appear well into the story. The defendant is therefore forced on the defensive from the outset. In such a situation, working with the media to create more balanced, accurate, and less sensational coverage of a legal action is a crucial element.
It follows that for defendants, a successful litigation communications strategy can mitigate the damage caused by legal actions. It can mean the difference between a ‘blip’ of media coverage and a full-blown reputational disaster. The key lies in effectively communicating to the right audiences, including the media, suppliers, shareholders and employees. Having a plan in place for litigation communications response can be one of the most valuable defence mechanisms against reputational damage as a legal dispute progresses. For parties to litigation, managing the communication process effectively can have a considerable impact on the ultimate resolution of the case, while protecting their overall reputation.
For both plaintiffs and defendants in litigation, managing the communication process effectively can have a considerable impact on the ultimate resolution of the case, while protecting their overall reputation.
Interested to learn more?
CoFactor helps clients prepare for and manage communications around legal issues, positioning their most persuasive messages for vital audiences. Our specialists work with the client’s legal team and relevant commercial teams, executives or board to resolve a matter on the most favorable legal (and financial) terms, while protecting reputation. Our litigation communications specialists include lawyers who are familiar with complicated legal contexts and sensitivities and understand the media landscape.