Is hiring a PR Firm a bad PR move?

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.

Let’s begin by stipulating that, contrary to the popular saying, there actually is such a thing as bad PR.  (See: Cruise, Tom)

There are times, in life, when you just know that having your name in the paper is going to be bad news for your reputation.  Backing the car over that adorable, furry animal, newly listed on the endangered species registry, is not going to make you look good, even if the car was a hybrid and you were rushing your grandmother to the doctor at the time.

But what about the simple act of hiring (and presumably paying) a public relations firm?  Does contracting someone to help manage your reputation automatically imply that there’s a problem?

This week, the Wisconsin press was full of stories about how Gov. Scott Walker used money from a legal defense fund, established before his election to statewide office, to pay a PR firm.  There’s nothing illegal about him doing this and, in fact, it’s a fairly standard practice.  But the underlying message of the media stories was clear: Walker, in the very quotable characterization of Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski, had hit “a new low.”

The specter of “spin doctoring” haunts the public relations industry and, with it, the idea that paying a media consultant is, somehow, just a little bit dirty.  One of the most effective ways to characterize, say, a corporate defendant as a big, bad conglomerate is to attach the phrase “and their high-priced lawyers and big PR firm” to their name whenever possible.

So, is this an impossible Catch-22: that the clients who are most in need of help dealing with the press are also those who will be most thoroughly pummeled for procuring such help?

Fortunately, no.

There are any number of strategies for minimizing public attention to the fact that a media consultant has been added to your client’s team, but the first among them is correctly managing the contractual relationship, which should be created, whenever possible, between the attorney and the consultant, NOT directly between the client and the consultant.  In this manner, the work done on the client’s behalf can be protected as attorney-client work product and billing records can be kept more discretely.

When you, or your client, needs help dealing with the media, seek it out.  The right professionals can guide you through a crisis without making it worse.

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