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Posted on 03.23.2010

PR and Legal Counsel: Uneasy Bedfellows and Strategic Partners

PR- and-Legal -Counsel-Uneasy-Bedfellows-and-Strategic-PartnersI have been blessed to work with some of the finest corporate attorneys in the country, but it is not always an easy partnership.  At times it can seem like legal and PR professionals are formed differently in the womb.  But when these experts make a love connection, the work product can be truly magnificent.

Because of my work in corporate crisis communications, I frequently interact with general counsel and corporate litigators in the areas of regulatory compliance and medical liability. These legal professionals are navigating highly sensitive issues that threaten significant consequences to their company or client – consequences like million dollar fines, restrictions on business development, cessation of the company’s operations and even jail time. In my experience, productive and reciprocal relationships with attorneys correlate to successful business outcomes.   Attorneys who understand and appreciate – though sometimes grudgingly – the perspective of public relations professionals prove to have their clients’ best interests at heart … not just their legal interests. Some attorneys will go so far as to acknowledge that PR professionals bring a different and valuable set of tools to the table that can, in some cases, actually help to pre-empt further legal tribulations. But partnership between practitioners of these arts is not always comfortable, particularly when they are “thrown together” just as their client’s issue has caught fire. Consider how seemingly divergent legal and PR gut instincts can be: Legal:  “Say nothing.” PR: “Be transparent.” Legal: “Protect everything from discovery.” PR: “Protect your stakeholders from surprises.” Legal: “Preserve attorney-client privilege.” PR: “Preserve the brand.” Legal: “Keep your head down.” PR: “Keep your relationships strong.” But these natural tendencies can be overcome when the two functions work together to achieve common goals. Consider a few examples from our firm’s experience:
  • We developed and helped implement a “Sorry Works” approach to a medical liability situation involving the preventable death of a 30-year old pregnant mother and her child; no civil suit was filed.
  • We helped craft the legal response to a survey that was part of a regulatory investigation with the goal of preventing misleading sound bites that could be taken out of context. We also helped the client to educate reporters and explain the circumstances of the investigation.  Ultimately, media coverage was minimal and neutral – though coverage of a very similar issue at another company was extensive and inflammatory … and damaging.
  • After a crime was alleged to have occurred at a New Orleans business following Hurricane Katrina we worked closely with legal counsel and media to ensure the company was not inappropriately associated with the crime. Media interest has continued for years, but our client’s name historically appears in less than five percent of coverage.
In truth, legal and public relations professionals must work together on heated crisis issues. Be assured, if PR is not brought to the table at the onset of the issue, they will be needed down the line. Visit our blog next  week when I discuss how the courts of law and public opinion intersect (with sparks) in the arena of social media.

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