Lawyers operate within the clearly-defined rules found in a court of law. Their clients, however, operate in the rough-and-tumble world of perception and reputation. Rules outside the courtroom lack clarity. Yet winning in the court of stakeholder opinion is equally as important to winning in court.

A version of this blog post appeared in Wisconsin Lawyer. Click image to read it.

A version of this blog post appeared in Wisconsin Lawyer. Click image to read it.

Ask a lawyer how the media report the facts of a given case. Misunderstood. Misrepresented. Completely out of context. All common refrains from the bar.

Ask a reporter how lawyers communicate about a given case. Not at all. Not well. Not clearly. All common refrains from the barroom outside the courthouse.

Ask the accused how a given case is impacting them. Getting mauled by media. Stressing out employees. Confusing suppliers. Concerning consumers. Frightening family. Alienating friends. Raising regulator eyebrows. And the list of stakeholder concerns goes on.

There’s a better way. But lawyers must think and act differently and more creatively. They must represent clients inside and outside court room. Attorneys who consider client implications in both spheres understand their role as legal counsel. Lawyers can improve how clients are perceived with crucial audiences. This includes prospective jurors.

Typically high-profile lawyers understand the power of working with public relations counsel. The higher profile the case, the hotter the spotlight. The hotter the spotlight, the more attention by audiences crucial to reputation and operations. For lawyers wondering what value public relations offers during litigation, here’s some—but not all—areas to consider.

Relationship rules matter. Public relations counsel supports the legal strategy. Typically PR counsel works behind the scenes to support legal strategies. Lawyers usually are out front. Legal counsel remains the final arbiter. But expect vigorous debate prior to deciding on what, how and when to release information publicly. Expect PR counsel to challenge legal counsel on external strategies. Integrity and engagement win the day.

Media know things. Ongoing dialogue can help build relationships with reporters who certainly receive lies, rumors, and other leaked information. PR counsel can get advanced warning to help prepare for what’s coming. Knowing a baseless story is coming can help kill it if we get out front of it. This prevents character assassination and other fallout from rumor mill reporting. And, at times, we may gain insights into what other agendas are working against our legal strategy.

Privilege. Attorney-client privilege certainly is sacrosanct. Legal strategy is paramount. But, legal counsel can inform PR strategy without breaking privilege. Legal team strategy can be shared without divulging facts or breaking privilege. It’s imperative that they share legal strategy to know where they are going to help shape PR strategy.

Going where lawyers won’t. Look at PR counsel as a means for engaging media and other audiences crucial to success. Lawyers focus on winning the legal battle. PR counsel support the legal strategy with audiences outside of the court room.

Media coverage matters. Educating, giving facts, and helping shape the tone and temperature of the coverage derives from working with media. If you don’t tell your client stories, someone else well—whether or not they know of what they speak.

Waiting is losing. If the first story is wrong, they are all wrong. It becomes the ongoing narrative. How often have you had a misunderstood legal term wrongly used and negatively impact your client’s perceived guilt or innocence?

Sharing is caring. Motions and filings become public record. Public record becomes a story. Every story is shaped. Outside groups with agendas. Man-on-the-street interviews. Reporters writing what they perceive. Legal experts without intimate case knowledge. Your client’s reputation is being shaped by everyone but the authority on what’s happening…the client’s attorney. 

Legalese kills understanding. Legal jargon needs to be broken down to common digestible information. Even when reporters are in the courtroom, they still may not be receiving all information. And the information they are getting needs to be boiled down to digestible understandable pieces. Put the work in with reporters and other mission-critical audiences to ensure they are understanding what they are hearing. Give them context. Coach them.

Education clarifies complex issues. Journalists and other key stakeholders need to be educated and given context to facts. No one understands the issues better than lawyers. But if you don’t help your clients engage mission-critical audiences, the fact still remains no one understands. Misunderstanding is the foundation of fear. Fear is the foundation of rumor. Rumor is the direct result of high-interest matters where a vacuum of information exists. All of it works against your client outside the courtroom.

Coaching to counter punch. Preparing lawyers for media engagement is different than preparing oral arguments for court. Objections and other court room rulings don’t apply with reporters. PR counsel prepares lawyers for the mental, verbal, strategic and tactical gymnastics of playing the media game. Words matter. Message timing matters. Delivery matters. All shape narratives. Narratives shape perception. Perception determines reputation. Reputation impacts trust. Trust determines future.