Good client defense starts long before opening arguments

Jim Martinez, a former reporter and editor, has spent years working at some of the world’s largest public relations firms.  He can be reached at jim@rightstorygroup.com.

You can win a case in a court of law, but lose it in the court of public opinion.

Thanks to our overburdened legal system, it often takes years to resolve lawsuits.  But, in today’s 24-second social media news cycle, clients often face more immediate threats to their business from the traditional and social media scrutiny arising from customer complaints, court filings or plaintiffs’ attorneys’ allegations.  In blogs, chat rooms, Facebook, Twitter and other social media havens, companies can quickly be “found guilty” of misconduct and sentenced to reduced sales, diminished business, discounted share value.

Some attorneys have long been adept at furthering their clients’ interests with public relations.  But today, all corporate counselors have a responsibility to protect clients both in and out of the courtroom – and they must take special care to shield clients from the mercurial court of public opinion that often decides matters long before they reach a judge or jury.

The influence of social media is enormous and growing.  It amplifies off-hand and controversial comments, usually without filtering them for accuracy.  Studies show that today’s consumers – and even business-to-business customers – are increasingly influenced by what they read online.  Many people will not buy products that do not get positive consumer reviews.  Others will not deal with companies criticized for their behaviors online.  As a result, antagonistic whisper campaigns can inflict severe damage before a company is ultimately vindicated in a court of law.

Consider the flurry of attention resulting from recent comments by a Republican presidential candidate who alleged that human papilloma virus vaccines are unsafe.  Health professionals have consistently endorsed the use of these cancer-preventing vaccines, but the candidate’s uninformed comments restarted a controversy that threatens to further slow their use.

Complainants have countless channels.  Do a quick search for “I hate (and fill in a company name)” or “(Fill in a company brand) sucks.”  You’ll be surprised at the public anger that exists for companies like Walmart, Sears, General Motors, United Airlines, McDonald’s and so many others.  These companies spend heavily to burnish their public images and are largely free of controversial litigation.  Imagine what will happen to organizations that do not have these marketing budgets to defend their public images.

Public opinion matters.  Remember, Corvairs were ultimately found to be safe – but the car brand died because consumers stopped buying them. Today, studies show the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) is safe for packaging, but retailers have banned countless products containing BPA.

Protecting the interests of clients today means that attorneys must think beyond the courtroom.  A forceful legal defense is often no longer enough.  Today, attorneys must help their clients communicate with the audiences critical to their success because an eventual victory in court will have little value to a company that has already been damaged by a barrage of negative publicity.

The solution is to identify a resource to protect your client’s reputation while you protect your client’s legal rights.  Doing this ensures real victory.

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