With a mix of fascination and horror, we watch the media circus that accompanies sensational courtroom stories on the television news.
Thank god it’s not me, we all think. However, increased regulation and litigation mean more and more organisations are likely to find themselves embroiled in a court case.
In this article, we look at the best ways to manage the opportunities and risks of courtroom communications.
There’s no doubt media is getting more adventurous when it comes to what it reports while cases are running. Many push the legal boundaries to publish the more salacious and sensational angles even before the case gets to court.
This increased coverage exposes organisations to significant reputational harm.
The advice from many who have been singed by the media blowtorch is to disengage yourself from the daily media bombardment. Turn off the television news and stop checking news.com to keep yourself focused and sane. Often this is also the primary advice from legal counsel.
Whilst it is true that legal considerations are paramount. There are also equally important reputation considerations. Even if you and other internal stakeholders are ignoring the media, you can be sure that other key stakeholders will be fixed to their screens. Regardless of the legal verdict, powerful forces are already at play in the court of public opinion.
Media Manoeuvres’ Managing Director Sam Elam says there’s a strong case to appoint an external consultant as the gatekeeper during a crisis.
“A consultant can bring the objectivity and perspective that a staff member couldn’t possibly have. It’s often helpful for an external to handle the media, using their contacts and expertise, paving the way for the staffer to ride in when the air has cleared.
“Whilst it is true that care must be taken in the legal arena at this stage, despite these legal constraints, there are still some crucial strategic communications that can be done.
“You might not be able to talk about the specifics of a case but you can still show compassion and/or care about the situation and tell your stakeholders via the media that you are doing everything possible to rectify the situation.
“You’re not accepting fault, but you are working to establish trust,” she said.
Organisations should also consider whether or not they could prevent the story getting into the media in the first place.
“In the past we have strongly advised clients to explore the possibility of a suppression order through legal counsel. It may not always be a valid option but is always worth exploring,” said Elam.
It’s just one of the ways that a communication specialist can work with legal representatives to protect a company’s reputation.
“Traditionally many lawyers are extremely risk averse when it comes to media and stakeholder communication during a court or tribunal hearing. Rightly, they are focused on the court outcome. However in many cases we have worked with legal teams to find ways to get our client’s messages out to key stakeholders whilst not risking courtroom objectives,” she said.
“In the aftermath of these cases our clients have received a lot of positive feedback about the fact the organisation was communicating with them and keeping them updated.
“They appreciated that the company was “not going to ground” and was instead “fronting up to the issues”, said Elam.
The legal and communications team can also work together to take the fear and uncertainty out of a court appearance for company employees.
“Most employees who have to appear in court of are paralysed with the fear of the unknown. Together with legal counsel we can advise them of what they’re in for and give them some tips on how to exercise control and remain calm,” said Elam.
As well as an advisory role, an external communications specialist can act as a go-between and deal with the barrage of media requests and queries.
It takes the pressure off and enables the communications professional to influence the news angle and address any factual mistakes or misunderstanding on the media’s part.
“After talking to the Chief Of Staff on behalf of a client recently, we were able to clarify a misunderstanding which would have been extremely damaging to our client if it had gone to air”, said Elam.
It’s also vital that an organisation has prepared its strategy for moving forward while matters are before the court.
After a case is concluded the organisation needs to hit the ground running. This means having key messages and statements prepared for all possible outcomes, which can be released once a verdict has been reached.
“That 24 hour news cycle after a verdict is all important. It forms the start of the recovery phase,” she said.
Elam added that then there is the recovery stage. What real damage has been done to your brand or reputation? Decisions need to be made about the severity of the impact and what type of communications strategy is required to address it.
“Often this is not a decision senior management can make after a crisis, a significant, long running issue or repetition of like issues. It requires objectivity and the absence of any emotive influence – positions that are almost impossible when you are in the centre of it.
“Assumptions are not helpful but research can be,” she said.
Managing your company’s reputation in a legal battle has many elements to it and many risks but ignoring it will be at an organisation’s peril and dealing with it successfully can actually enhance a reputation.
“They way you handle a crisis or an issue can be more important than the issue or crisis itself in reputation currency,” Elam said.