Special Feature

Effectively Using Media Relations In Litigation

By Scott Lorenz

Clarence Darrow, F. Lee Bailey, Vincent Bugliosi, Johnny Cochran are all names you recognize. But did you ever stop to think why?

They’re famous because they handled infamous cases that obtained incredible media exposure. Their reputations were greatly enhanced by the cases they tried.

Winning or losing in the court of public opinion can be just as important as what happens in the courtroom. Lawyers and their clients need to develop communications strategies that support and enhance their legal strategies.

Why Bother Getting Media Attention?

USA Today reported in February 2001 that a group of Harry Potter fans sued Warner Brothers after its legal team sent threatening letters to people who created fan web sites. It was the media attention about the lawsuit that embarrassed Warner Brothers into backing off of its strong stance.

Here are a few other reasons why you should capture the attention of the media:

  1. It may help to attract more business to the firm
  2. It could establish the veracity of the claim in the mind of the public and
  3. it could manage the reputation of a client during the trial.

There are at least three ways to increase media exposure for you and your firm.

Pro bono work Anybody heard of Geoffrey Fieger? Where would he be today without the incredible media exposure he received from handling Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s case? Fieger did not need to be paid by Dr. Kevorkian because he was paid handsomely in the form of image-building media exposure. This exposure led to even more cases, and now there’s hardly a week that goes by without some new case obtained by Fieger’s law firm. And, by the way, how do we hear about these new cases? From the media, of course. The good thing about pro bono work is that you can choose the type of cases or organizations with which to work. Is there a charity in need of your help? How about a non-profit?

American Civil Liberties Union Issues such as free speech, cyber-liberties, disability rights and the death penalty are just a few of the hot news-making issues being defended by the ACLU. Sure, some of the cases can be distasteful, negative or might even be against your beliefs. But the ACLU will also expose the case to the media using their own media relations personnel, so becoming involved can be a boost without using your own public relations resources. If you can stand the heat while defending civil liberties, jump in. Let’s face it: controversy attracts the media like moths to a flame.

Get published. There are plenty of trade publications, such as Michigan Lawyers Weekly, and association newsletters that need material. Offer to contribute an op-ed piece, write letters to the editor about a local issue to the media in your area, offer to comment about a topic of interest or legal issue facing the community, company or individual. These are all good ways to gain exposure.

If you don’t have time to write something, hire a ghostwriter. You read ghost-written material every day, but may not know it. Here’s how it works. A writer is hired and a topic is selected. The writer interviews you and prepares a story for you to review. You make necessary changes and corrections, and then pitch it to a publication. The story, hopefully, gets published. Not ethical or fair, you say? Do all Supreme Court justices write their opinions?

PR & Litigation Support

Media is a tool in your bag; you’ve got to use it. If you don’t know how to do it, or don’t have time, contact a public relations professional to help. Another option is to search the web under the topics “litigation support Michigan” or “PR Firms Michigan.” You can certainly do some of this yourself and, in many cases, you’ll have no problem. However, there’s an old saying in the legal profession that applies in the public relations field as well: “Only a fool would have himself as a client.”

A public relations person will take the case, distill it from a legal document and put it into “man on the street” language. The salient points will be crystallized thus creating an angle that would be appealing to the press. Keep in mind that your lawsuit is fighting for attention in the “hard news” slot — it has to be compelling and people need to care about it. A personal connection to the public must be established, as in, “wow, that could happen to anybody, even me.”

Public relations professionals also have contacts in the media and will know where to pitch a certain type of story. Just as attorneys know the idiosyncrasies of judges, public relations people know who to contact at the various media outlets, and they’ll know the types of stories they would most likely be interested in. They also have the relationships to help cut through the deluge of mail, faxes, e-mail and phone calls that come into the newsroom each day.

On a tour of the Detroit News mail room a couple of years ago, I spoke to the mail clerk. She showed me the 20 giant mailbags that come into the mail room every day. All I could think was how many thousands of press releases were in that pile, and how the odds of any one of them seeing the light of day were not good. Now think of this: your press release is in that pile. How do you get your story to the top of the heap?

Your media relations representative will work with the media to help them understand the case and assist them in the gathering of information, quotes, photos and videos so that the final published story reflects the position of your client. Your media relations representative or public relations firm is also responsible for:

  • developing an overall communications strategy
  • preparing key talking points and key messages
  • preparing and distributing press releases and support material
  • analyzing the dynamics of a case from a media perspective
  • helping the media at every opportunity to present your client’s side of the story
  • handling local and national media relations, and monitoring that coverage for accuracy
  • training clients in effective media communications and
  • attending hearings and trials when necessary for interaction with members of the media.
Positive PR

If you use public relations wisely and well, you’ll prosper. Following are some tips on how to best utilize the media.

Be accessible by providing your home and cell phone numbers. If you don’t want the media to have your phone numbers, at least give them to your public relations person so you can be contacted. Oftentimes, members of the media are on a deadline and need a quote or comment to finish a story. If you’re not around, they’ll go on to someone else. Members of the press call the author on a regular basis and ask, “Got any good stories for me?” or “My 11 a.m. story is canceled and I need something right now. Got anything?”

Be honest and forthright with the media. If you cannot say it, tell them “I’m sorry but I cannot say.” Never say “No comment.” That just makes the media want more.

Recognize when things are beyond your ability to deal with them. If you have a real hot news story, you’ll go mad handling the calls. Have your assistant or public relations person help out so you can focus on the important matters of the case.
Know when to call a press conference. If you have a hot story, and exclusive interviews take too much time, schedule a press conference. Sometimes a conference-call press conference will work, too. Just set the time, announce it on the wire, call AP, get the word out, and let the media call in.

Practice the sound bite. That’s the 10-second clip that’s used from a 20-minute interview. What is the main point you want to convey? Focus on your message, and know what you want to say before the camera is thrust in your face. If you talk for three minutes on camera and you have one major point to make, say it three different ways. That way, you are assured it will be played. It’s been said by many public relations practitioners that the ability to prepare and deliver effective sound bites is one of the most important skills you can have.

It’s never “off the record.” Ninety-nine percent of the media are very honorable. However, be extremely careful when openly discussing certain material with them — even if it’s understood that its “off the record” or “embargoed.” In media relations, “embargoed” means the conversation just held or a press release will not be quoted until a certain time in the future. Remember Judge Jackson and the Microsoft case? His comments to an author were to be published in a book after the case was finished. That lapse of judgment may have cost the government the case and, at the very least, damaged it. The best policy is this: If you couldn’t stand to see your comments in front-page headlines, don’t say it.

Carefully select the time and date you file the case. If it is not time sensitive, time the filing for a slow news day. For example, don’t pick the same day the Lions open the new stadium, an election day, the eve of the MSU basketball NCAA Championship game, or some controversy just beginning to get air time. These events require every available camera crew and reporter to cover them, and your case has a lesser chance of being covered. Conversely, if you want a case to go relatively unnoticed, pick a busy news day such as one of the above.

Make it easy for the media to work with you. For cases that warrant it, use a service that takes all the materials in a traditional brief and turns them into a condensed electronic case-review tool. It’s easy to refer the media to a web address, and it reduces the paper glut. Visit, for example, www.reallegal.com/ebrief.asp.

Finally, there’s the advice of an attorney after losing a discrimination case — both in the courtroom and in the media: “You cannot count on the press to be aggressive in seeking out both sides; they will tell the story with whatever information they have at the time. You have to make it your responsibility to pursue the press and tell your side of the story.”

Scott Lorenz is president of Westwind Communications, a public relations and marketing firm based in Plymouth. He can be reached at (734) 667-2090 or by e-mail at scottlorenz@westwindcos.com or visit https://www.westwindcos.com/