Your Client Wants to Talk To The Press: Ethical Considerations in High-Profile Matters

Debra Pickett is President of Page 2 Communications (www.page2comm.com).  A former newspaper columnist and television commentator, Pickett offers consulting and training to law firms and lawyers who deal with the media.  Reach her at deb@page2comm.com.

Let’s assume, for the moment, that your client is NOT Rod Blagojevich.

Still, if you handle issues that get public attention, whether over the neighborhood grapevine or the national news, you’ve probably been faced with clients chomping at the bit to get the facts out and tell their side of the story.  Your first priority, of course, is the legal issue at hand.  And your next, quite naturally, is avoiding any trial publicity that might threaten the fairness of the proceedings in the matter.  So, your instincts (and experience) might tell you that it’s best to keep your client away from reporters and social media entirely.

Certainly, there are plenty of good reasons to be concerned – you don’t want or need to see your legal strategy laid out in a public forum before adjudicative proceedings even begin.  But there are also some great advantages, for your client and you, in keeping some channels of communication open.  How can you best advise your clients in these situations, while still doing your most effective and ethical work?

First, know the relevant codes of professional conduct and understand how they come into play.  What information is off-limits in extrajudicial statements?  If there has been recent adverse publicity – not initiated by you or your client – Illinois’ rules of professional conduct do allow you to make public statements that protect your client from the prejudicial effects of that publicity.  In other words, silence is not the only ethical response.

Second, consider your client’s temperament and how you can help mitigate risks and limit exposure created when he or she speaks publicly.  Does your client need a “minder” to be present during media interviews or should someone offer coaching in advance of a conversation to clarify what needs to be kept confidential?  These services might be available to your client through a public relations firm already on retainer or through resources connected to your own marketing department.

Third and finally, take a moment to talk with your client about the long-term and strategic impact of the public statements they wish to make.  Are there implications for their relationships with customers, employees and neighbors?  While the immediate instinct to respond to negative publicity by “fighting fire with fire” is certainly understandable, there are probably more productive ways to engage in civic conversations about important matters.  Finding ways to promote your client’s overall image in the community and nurture key connections can go a long way towards mitigating the damage done by rumors and concerns over a contentious matter.

After giving some attention to these three considerations, you’re in a great position to help your client make good decisions about how to communicate with all the various stakeholders and constituencies interested in the high-profile matter you’re handling.  Now, of course, if our first assumption wasn’t valid and your client actually IS Rod Blagojevich, well, that’s an entirely different advice column!

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