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29 March 2016

Lawyers are failing in the court of public opinion

Written by: David Sugden, Head of Litigation & Legal Affairs at Edelman

Corporate Reputation

First it was globalisation, then digitisation – the textbooks on reputation management have been re-written almost monthly over recent years.

In the protection of corporate and personal reputations, legal requirements are generally well understood: you need a good law firm to fight your corner. But still not fully understood is how communications can support a case. Ignore that side of the coin, and you may end up counting the financial cost later.

The world is becoming more litigious. Everywhere you turn someone is arguing with someone else. “Hire more lawyers,” has been the historic response. And indeed, that may once have been the best solution, when legal issues were won by the black letter of the law alone.

This is no longer the case. The resolution of legal issues has never been more influenced by factors outside the courtroom, while reputations have never been determined less by the underlying legal position. A position is not complete unless a litigant has both legal and communications practitioners building strategy, arguments and responses side by side, complementing each other with the shared mission of protecting reputations.

Why are communications so important? In today’s globalised and digitalised world disputes are fought across many battlefields. There are multiple stakeholders and audiences, each with their own agendas. Privacy is a thing of the past.

While lawyers decipher legal precedents, interpreting the contractual, communications practitioners buttress that work by influencing the other battlefields. They amplify the key messages, build relationships, create persuasive content; turn antagonists into advocates, and rebut inaccuracies. Any party not employing this two-pronged approach can be sure the other side will be.

There is, of course, a deep-set dichotomy to overcome in that lawyers are generally risk and publicity-averse, while communications practitioners are risk and publicity-abetting. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that sets the right balance.

However, if the contrasting legal and communications responses of two recent events – the independent review findings published last November relating to the deaths of two children at a Thomas Cook-organised holiday in Corfu in 2006 (a legally-driven response), and the Alton Towers rollercoaster accident last June (initially a PR-driven response) – tell us anything, it is that legal and communications practitioners should work together from an early stage to protect reputations and, in many cases, bottom lines.

Don’t just take the word of PR professionals in this discussion; ask Vijaya Gadde and John Davidson – general counsels of Twitter and SABMiller, respectively – who have recently assumed additional responsibility for the other side of the reputational coin, namely communications.

But the vast majority of lawyers still haven’t caught on. In a world where the toss of the coin could reveal tails on any given day, clients’ pockets are still full of double-headed coins.

This piece originally appeared in The Brief, The Times on Thursday 17th March 2016.

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