Oscar Wilde once said, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”
While it’s a wonderful experience to learn from your mistakes, clients hire those law firms that avoid making them in the first place.
Of course, it’s safe to say nobody is perfect. That’s why firms often trust in a third party dedicated to mistake-prevention and mistake-correction: the public- relations (PR) agency.
Television is rife with PR disasters: Tom Cruise and the couch-jumping incident, John McCain and bailing on Letterman, Ellen’s puppy fiasco… Law firms, however, are hardly immune.
Consider, for example, the firm King & Spalding.
In May, the firm received a fair bit of bad press after it agreed to represent House Republicans in defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). After gay-rights groups protested, King & Spalding withdrew from the case—but without any definitive explanation. Amid much controversy, King & Spalding experienced a snowball effect in terms of averse consequences and bad PR.
First, former solicitor general and firm Partner, Paul Clement (the attorney who brought King & Spalding the case) resigned. Next, the NRA and Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli—both clients of the firm—changed counsel.
Eventually, the dust settled on King & Spalding’s office politics. But, how much damage was done?
The following is a list of PR pitfalls—like King & Spalding’s—that your law firm can learn from to avoid succumbing to its own. Hopefully these errors in judgment will prevent your firm from being next in the negative, legal limelight.
1. Employing Hands-off PR Strategies. Though experts in their field, PR agencies should not shoulder all the responsibility and work involved in creating a positive image for your firm. Partners and associates must all chip in when it comes to managing the PR poker game.
After the New York Post broke the story regarding Worby Groner Edelman‘s marketing poster (and ploy) that used 9/11 imagery to advertise for plaintiffs harmed at Ground Zero, the firm referred reporters calling about the controversy to Barker/DZP—the agency in charge of the ad. The firm should have responded to critics directly. Although conceived in an office somewhere else in New York City, the image and reputation of the law firm and its attorneys is the one at stake, not the art directors.
Richard Levick, President of Levick Strategy Communications, writes of law firm PR strategy:
“Reporters are like stray cats –if you don’t feed them, they go to someone else’s door. Call them back first, even if it is to say that you can’t say anything. Reporters remember who calls them and who doesn’t. Not returning the journalist’s call today, no matter what the reason, guarantees that you won’t get the call when you do want to be in the paper.”
Employing third-party consultants does not exempt an attorney from speaking to the press or being a model representative of their firm. A PR person does not substitute for a well-spoken (and sometimes apologetic) law partner.
2. Participating In Impromptu Interviews. Senior attorneys would never show up to a courtroom unprepared, so why would you do the same for interviews with the press?
Continuing on the 9/11 example, the band Blue never recovered from backlash resulting from comments made by band member Lee Ryan during an interview. He was reported saying, “What about whales? They are ignoring animals that are more important,” among other insensitive statements, when asked about the events of September 11.
Lawyers are more poised than popstars. But, the point remains. Impromptu interviews to the press about a case can have disastrous consequences.
Implement a firm-wide policy that controls what lawyers are allowed to say to the press. This simultaneously controls what the press prints about your firm and its clients. Also, ask your PR agency to prep key law firm partners for difficult, public scenarios involving the media. Don’t forget, even an ill-prepared press statement can grossly misrepresent the voice of your firm.
3. Going On The Defensive. Managing your public image—like social media—is not fad. Both trends are here to stay. That’s why a PR strategy should become a permanent addition to your firm.
It’s tempting to outsource PR work only when there’s trouble. The key, however, is to prevent trouble in the first place.
Take, for example, Miley Cyrus’s PR people. After the underage singer posed in some racy photos by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair, her PR company correctly issued a public apology to the many disgruntled fans (and parents of fans).
Nevertheless, Miley Cyrus’s family was present for the shoot and should have involved their PR reps far before the magazine was ever published. Printed material sets words and images in stone.
Richard Levick, advises:
“Law firms conducting press relations project-by-project are wasting their money. If Coca-Cola only engaged in publicity when they had a new formula, you would be drinking Pepsi. Publicity requires reach and repetition. That means lots of placements, lots of times. Getting press ‘every once in a while’’, has little value beyond soothing the ego. Publicity for law firms is about business development, not ego.”
Law firms should keep PR-agency opinion handy for both defensive and pre-emptive decisions.
4. Believing More Publicity Is Good Publicity. The fact is, more publicity does not equal good publicity.
When Ellen DeGeneres adopted a puppy, Iggy, from Mutts & Moms, she had no idea the dog wouldn’t agree with her cats. So she gave Iggy to her hairdresser’s family. However, Mutts & Moms’ policy required Ellen to return the dog to it, and took aggressive measures to repossess Iggy.
Despite appearing in tears on her show, Ellen could not get Mutts & Moms to return Iggy to her hairdresser’s family. And, in turn, Mutts and Moms received thousands of scathing reviews and threats from furious Ellen fans. Now, opposed to “good service” and “cuddly puppies,” a Google search of Mutts & Moms leads to, “Mutts and Moms: Ellen Ruined Our Reputation.”
Lesson learned? Even when it’s non-standard practice, do what it takes to avoid negative publicity—within reason (see last pitfall).
5. Trusting In Total Denial. Finally, the strategy to “deny, deny, deny” is the same as “lie, lie, lie.”
Whatever ethical standards lawyers abide by in the courtroom, they should require in the press room.
Read more about the above celebrity PR incidents in “10 of the Biggest PR Blunders in Recent History,” here.