Litigation PR: Why ‘No Comment’ is no good

Nick Augustine is the principal of Pro Serve PR Marketing, a firm that provides marketing and public relations advising and services for law firms. Nick’s niche in litigation public relations grew out of time spent in litigation trenches. Nick is a frequent national speaker on law firm public relations, risk, strategy and public opinion management. Nick earned a communications and rhetorical studies degree from Marquette University and a law degree from The John Marshall Law School, where he is an active Alumni Board member.

When the media calls, you should respond or your credibility might suffer. There are few instances where absolute silence is appropriate; the standard responses, “our policy is not to comment” or “we haven’t yet read the complaint” don’t satisfy the curious reader. Too often, lawyers think they are making the best decision to keep quiet, but in a 24-hour news cycle, most people form their opinion on first impression – there are no second chances.

Public support and awareness of litigation can affect the value of the parties’ claims. Under pressure from the public and within an industry, cases are managed and settled with reputation and goodwill in mind. To balance the courts of public opinion and law, smart litigators work with public relations professionals who quickly research and prepare appropriate statements and communication plans. Working together, the attorney and publicist guide the dialogue to advance their best position with the public. Being aware, relevant and timely is imperative in litigation public relations.

Be aware. Many of us no longer learn about news in a top-down format. Headlines attract readers’ comments on social media sites where many of us find the daily news among our friends’ status updates. Savvy readers want to know what’s going on quickly and they are used to a quick synopsis of relevant information. When a law firm declines to comment, the reader is left to imagine what happened. Do you really think the busy reader will go back later to see if the law firm commented? Likely not.

Be relevant. The definition of relevance is broader in public opinion than in law. In litigation, attorneys consider the admissibility of information before making disclosures. Attorneys reasonably fear that statements made to media might show up again, in court, and offered by an opponent as admissions. Likewise, plaintiffs’ conversations, both private and public, are subject to scrutiny and deposition questions. How do you balance these competing risks? Engage a professional media consultant.

Be timely. Well prepared comments for media should be prepared before you file anything. Remember, in court, counsel gets a chance to plead and carefully state theories of their case or defense. In news, counsel must say something substantive and reach the public quickly. A non-response to litigation sends a message that the lawyer doesn’t care about the public reading the story.

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