Attorneys contribute to PR nightmares

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

There’s an old saying about how any publicity is good publicity.  Well, some publicity can complicate legal representation.  Many attorneys voice frustration that their cases are often dissected in the court of public opinion long before they reach the court of law.

The irony is that a significant share of the bad publicity is being generated by … wait for it … attorneys.

Social media is a great way to market a law practice.  Many attorneys have embraced blogs and other channels to promote their expertise to prospective clients.  It’s impossible to count the number of blogs written by personal-injury attorneys, medical malpractice attorneys and other plaintiffs’ counsel.  All these channels very actively publicize new cases and discuss every development.

No doubt the rationale for the steady stream of blog posts is that they provide a public service by sharing information the media often overlooks.  Obviously, the blogs also drive awareness for an attorney’s legal expertise with consumers who are interested in the topic.

But the consequence is that the flurry of social media can make legal defense challenging by contributing to a superheated media environment that can also pose a threat to the company trying to defend itself.

Consider the story of Tiny Greens Organic Farm, a Central Illinois company that attracted attention last year when it was targeted by the FDA after several Midwestern consumers became ill from salmonella after eating at a popular sandwich chain that used its sprouts.

There was widespread media coverage of the story when it first broke – but it has been kept alive by the significant attention it has gotten from attorney blogs.  A recent search of Google for “Tiny Greens” showed that of the 30 citations in the first three pages of search results, nine were legal blogs, 10 were FDA announcements and articles covering the story.

These kinds of blog posts create real issues – both for the targeted company and its attorneys:

  • They influence public perceptions and can make jury selection difficult.
  • They can threaten a company’s very existence, which has obvious implications for their attorneys.
  • They can lead to unwarranted legal action from consumers panicked into thinking a problem exists where none actually does.
  • They contribute to an environment of mistrust in which many people are skeptical of both businesses and the law.
  • They tend to make the legal profession look like ambulance chasers.

Traditionally, attorneys have tried to separate themselves from publicity involving their clients.  However, in today’s 24-second media environment, it is important to recognize that the only way to protect those clients’ legal interests is by helping them to protect their reputations.  Courtrooms are great for determining the facts of a case, but attorneys must recognize they can help their clients just as much by helping them to balance the damaging chatter that is so prevalent today.

In the case of social media, the only way to balance the spectrum of negative posts is by generating enough positive news and citations to effectively “bury” the bad news.  If that isn’t done, the repetition of social media can reinforce bad perceptions about even the best companies.

To enhance the value they offer clients, attorneys need not become experts in public relations – only recognize the need for that expertise and, in an ideal world, introduce their clients to it.

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