‘High profile,’ like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder

Debra Pickett is president of Page 2 Communications (www.page2comm.com).  A former newspaper columnist and television commentator, Pickett offers consulting and training services to law firms and lawyers who deal with the media.  She writes here each week on topics related to law and media.  To learn more, reach her at deb@page2comm.com.

When I say that I work with lawyers handling high profile matters, attorneys often smile a reply, with evident relief, that they don’t deal with those kinds of cases.

And, to be sure, most attorneys – even most litigators – aren’t involved in celebrity murder trials or defending alleged mobsters or securing zillion dollar class action settlements.  Those are the kinds of cases we’ve all traditionally thought of as “high profile” – the stuff from which “Law & Order” episodes are made.  But, in this age of chat boards and blogs and tweets and LinkedIn groups and Facebook friends, issues that once existed outside of public view and comment are now fair game for the focused attention of interested (and highly vocal) folks.

So, while there might not be a correspondent from “Entertainment Tonight” sticking a microphone in your face to talk about it, that environmental issue your client is working on resolving might well be the topic of conversation among activists, neighbors, employees and others.  And those people, who can connect to one another more easily than ever before, via social media, might well be showing up to speak at the next public meeting.  Or sending letters to the editor.  Or picketing the front gate.

Whether it’s a labor matter at a large local employer or a zoning change that requires neighborhood approval, the case you’re handling right now has the potential to become “high profile” very quickly.  We’ve all seen images, videos and remarks that have gone viral: taken out of context and spinning out of control.

Do you have a plan in place to deal with that?  Does your client?

Planning a communication strategy in parallel with your legal strategy is the best way to be prepared for the unexpected.  A few simple steps will have you ready to cope with public attention to your case and help you get your message out to the right audiences.

First, as always, begin by listening.  List the key constituencies that have interest in the matter at hand – is there a union, a neighborhood group or an issue advocate who might have a stake in what’s happening?  Search the Web and social media sites to find where, in cyberspace, those folks are talking to and connecting with each other.  Search for key words and names to see what tweets and posts come up.

Next, assemble a team: you, your client and the resources you both have (in-house or externally) to craft messages and disseminate them to the public.  Marketing, public relations and media relations professionals can all help with these tasks.

Then you can move forward with a plan, based on what’s being said.  Are there facts that need to be corrected?  Are there conversations that need to happen?  Are there groups with opposing views who are being left out of the dialogue?  Put your team to work doing what needs to be done.

Social media can amplify and complicate public responses to legal actions.  But, fortunately, it can also be used to address misconceptions and clear up confusion.  You can make it work for you – and your client, even if you don’t typically deal with those kinds of cases.

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