Leveraging Your Reputation: Watch what you say in the court of public opinion

Tom Ciesielka is president of TC Public Relations (www.tcpr.net). Tom has over 25 years of marketing and public relations experience, working with individual lawyers and midsize law firms. He is also a former board member of the Legal Marketing Association in Chicago and has spoken at The Chicago Bar Associations CLE programs. Reach him at tc@tcpr.net.

When attorneys speak for their clients, they have to be careful what they say. It seems like an obvious concept, but I think the attorney in a Globe and Mail news story wasn’t thinking before he made comments about a case that he was working on.

The attorney was defending a man who abducted a toddler from his home. His attorney said that he should not be considered dangerous because he returned the child four days later unharmed, and because he has “the maturity and manner…of a child.” If his client is deemed dangerous, he could spend the rest of his life in jail.

Of course, the attorney wants to prevent his client from being imprisoned forever, and there is probably legal reasoning that makes sense in a court of law, but in the court of public opinion, this attorney is losing.

He should have considered how parents would feel about the situation. All kinds of people are reading the story, and they probably don’t care about legal definitions. What they’re probably thinking is fear: they would be very upset if their child was abducted, and to read the attorney’s defense of the kidnapper seems insensitive and cold. The fact is, his client still abducted the child. A parent reading the story automatically would think, “This guy is dangerous; let’s lock him up for life.”

If the attorney had considered how he appeared in the press, he would have thought about the audience’s feelings and how they would respond to his case. He should have at least acknowledged parents’ concerns by saying, “I understand that most parents feel upset about this situation, and I understand that they would want justice.” And then he could go into his defense of his client.

It’s a lesson for any attorney: before you speak in the press, consider what the readers, viewers or listeners might think, and address their concerns so that they don’t see you and your client in a negative light.

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