Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Today’s legal strategies demand public relations

Q&A with Daniel Cherrin, attorney, lobbyist and PR executive

            High-profile litigation involves not just the defense of the legal claim but also the protection of the client’s public image.  Where a case has aroused public or media interest or has the potential, it is vital that attorneys are prepared to face the media.  After all, when the damage is done publicly the legal outcome becomes irrelevant.

            In today’s 24/7 news cycle, attorney’s through their public relations counsel, can position clients to avoid litigation, minimize risk and protect their reputation, by blending law, policy, politics and strategic communications to provide clients an integrated approach to resolving or avoiding legal problems. 

            As an attorney, lobbyist and public relations executive, Daniel Cherrin has counseled a wide range of clients during crisis situations providing critical insight and recommendations to deal with situations and how to communicate effectively under less than the best conditions.  In the following interview, Daniel draws on his experience in responding to questions about using public relations as an effective part of a legal strategy.

Q:            Why do lawyers need to be concerned about public relations? 

A:            Today’s business environment demands an aggressive strategy to resolve issues legally while protecting one’s reputation publicly.  Unfortunately, most people do not realize they need PR until they get a call from a reporter, subpoena from Congress or it is otherwise too late.  As a result, lawyers need to be more than legal counselors or advocates.  They need to be familiar enough with how perception is created within the public eye and how to use the media effectively to manage that perception.  Therefore, the potential impact any litigation will have on a client’s image, reputation, investor relations and future business must be considered in creating a legal strategy. 

In preparing for litigation or creating a legal strategy to meet a client’s objectives attorneys must consider the impact on their client’s business and reputation.  Reputations take years to create and only seconds to destroy.  Engaging public relations counsel early can create a comprehensive strategy that will help clients succeed.

Q.             Why is it important to have relationships with public relations experts?

A.            In today’s economy decisions are made based upon perception and reputation.  Therefore, it is important to have the necessary relationships to make sure a client’s reputation is protected should any litigation become public or even to help position the client to remain out of the public eye.  But in establishing relationships with public relations firms, it is important that the PR counsel be sensitive to the legal ramifications of their actions as it relates to protecting the company’s reputation.

To protect a client’s legal interests and also to preserve the client’s reputation publicly, counsel should consider engaging public relations counsel early in the process, so as to develop a complementary strategy and get advice on how to deal with the media and protect the client’s public relations interests.  In developing a broad legal strategy that embraces both legal and public relations concerns, lawyers need to look beyond the facts and include public relations concerns as a comprehensive strategy.  Public relations counsel can assist attorneys by managing the public relations issues while the attorneys focus on the traditional elements of mounting a case.  If both the legal and the public relations components are to succeed, it is essential that both legal counsel and public relations counsel coordinate their efforts.

Q.            How can lawyers protect their client’s reputation?

A.            A lawyer who is going to represent a client outside the courtroom must become more comfortable in talking freely about their client’s case.  Lawyers, trained to protect client confidences and to control information, have a natural tendency to answer only the questions that are asked and to give no more information than is necessary to resolve the issue.  In the view of the public, however, information and communication are the two factors that build trust and go a long way toward preserving one’s reputation.            

A PR firm can train attorneys in media relations and crisis management so they can feel more comfortable in talking with the media or dealing with the immediate concerns of a crisis.  A public relations counselor can employ specific tactics to protect the reputation of a company or an individual leading a company while reinforcing issues legally.  For example, in the public eye, we are presumed guilty if we respond to a reporter’s question with “no comment.”  A better way to respond to a question you do not want to answer or are not ready to answer is to deflect it, by saying something like: “That is a very good question, one that we are looking into at the moment.  As soon as we learn something new, we will get back to you promptly.”  Lawyers must be more diligent in looking at the big picture in protecting their clients’ interests in the court of law as well as in the court of public opinion.

Q.            Can attorneys handle the PR directly?

A.            Given the stakes in today’s litigation environment, attorneys may find it helpful to develop a relationship with a public relations firm, so that it can be ready to assist on short notice if and when it is needed.  For example, some public relations firms are known for their expertise in crisis and reputation management while others focus more on soft promotions and publicist work.  Some public relations firms focus specifically on litigation communications practice, and even have attorneys and registered lobbyists on staff.  Regardless of the case, it helps to establish those relationships early.

Q:            If a company would like to learn more about protecting their reputation when faced with potential litigation, how can they reach you?

A:            I can be reached by email at dcherrin@northcoaststrategies.com or by telephone at (313) 300-0932.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Whose watching what is posted on social media sites?

Another case to watch is one emerging from (Turin) Italy that involves four Google executives who are charged with defamation and violating the privacy of an autistic youth by allowing a (2006) video of the child being abused to be posted on YouTube. This case is being closely watched by the public relations community as it has far-reaching implications for sharing video and other content on the Internet.

The defendants are: chief legal officer David Drummond, former chief financial officer George Reyes, senior product marketing manager Arvind Desikan and global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer. All have denied any personal or professional wrongdoing. When the video sparked outrage, Google removed it. The company cooperated with Italian authorities and police found the youths, who were sentenced to community service.

The issue is: Who polices peer-to-peer video sites? Some rely on the users to flag inappropriate content. But once the video is out there, what is the responsibility of the company? What responsibility does the user have to avoid posting clearly offensive junk? Stay tuned to YouTube for its conclusion.

Twitter Transparency Update

As it turns out, the Detroit News reported that Twitter released the location of the computer that was sending out Tweets about Tanner Friedman, which linked it to Tanner and Friedman's previous employer. As we talking about our global footprint, we should all remember that our computers also leave a footprint. So be cautious in what you send, how you send it and what say.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Twitter Transparency

Two recent lawsuits are challenging on line transparency, beginning with Twitter. St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa sued Twitter over an account created in his name and Detroit-based PR firm, Tanner Friedman is asking Twitter to reveal the name(s) of those who set up an account and fake agency page on Twitter. (*In full disclosure, one of the named partners at Tanner Friedman is a distant cousin of mine.) According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, La Russo's lawsuit claims someone created an account in his name and sent out "derogatory" remarks, thus damaging his reputation, causing "significant emotional distress."

PC World recently commented on La Russo's lawsuit, stating that "Twitter's "Impersonation Policy" clearly states that "parody impersonation accounts" are perfectly permissible. As long as the profile somehow indicates it isn't meant to be legit, it's A-OK by Twitter standards."

Although La Russo and Twitter are trying to work out a settlement, TannerFriedman just wants answers as to who is using Twitter to try to damage the reputation of a PR firm and wants to hold that person accountable.

According to a recent post on the TannerFriedman blog, a response states that "Legislators in Texas last week passed an “online harassment” bill making it a crime to impersonate people on social media sites." The bill now awaits the governor's signature. According to On Line Media Daily, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) has introduced a federal measure.

This is uncharted territory for lawyers, lawmakers and public relations professionals. In fact, today, websites and social networking sites are being extremely cautious about what is posted on their site as to limit their liability. However, given the enormous popularity of Twitter, Facebook, Linked IN, You Tube and others, some post or parody is bound to slip through the wires.

To avoid any damage and mitigate any loss to your business and reputation, you should constantly monitor the Internet to avoid anyone to cause you any further damage and continue to work to increase your profile among key sectors, including on line media.