The coverage of legal disputes involving companies and private individuals has grown rapidly in recent years, and the focus is no longer on highly sensational criminal proceedings. The public sphere has become a playing ground between the proceedings’ parties, who use the media publicity to gain support or—in the worst case—to discredit their opponent. While the judicial system has meanwhile learned to deal with media interest, it is still subject to strict guidelines that get in the way of comprehensive and objective information. Affected companies must prepare themselves specifically for this: a lack of understanding of the law coupled with complex legal jargon often lead to half-truths and fake news in public.
Five theories about the use of LEGAL Communications
Everyone has the right to a fair trial – in the courtroom and in the media
Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights contains the right to a fair trial, and paragraph 2 of this article states the right to the presumption of innocence. This means that every person charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law. This applies not only to the legal process itself, but also to how it is portrayed in the media. Pre-judgements or “coloured” reports of events and their effects can cause great harm to individuals and companies during proceedings. Nothing should be left to chance when it comes to communicative litigation support. Rumours, speculations or other hastily formed public opinions must be countered with swift, professional and focused communication.
Success factor: one voice – one agenda
In order to protect the reputation of a person or a company, a joint process and communication strategy is required in the case of any legal disputes. Those affected (often the management level of a company), lawyers and those responsible for communication must speak the same language and must pull together. Different rules apply in court and in external communication, for example with the media, but especially in high-profile proceedings it is important to give equal consideration to all legalities. Prosecutors or expert witnesses should in no way be seen or portrayed as opponents. Rather, opponents are things like polarisation traps, role clichés, pre-judgement or compromising photos. The motto is “fact vs. emotion”; differentiation is essential.
Open communication also proves its worth in legal disputes
Only those who communicate proactively contribute to balanced reporting. Moreover, the dialogue-oriented use of social media can create space for emotion. Which strategy is best pursued here must be assessed individually for each case. It is often worthwhile to address critical topics oneself and thus maintain control over the conversation. Internal communication also has a special role to play: clear and quick information based on the facts prevents the emergence of a communicative vacuum, which subsequently allows for any kind of room for interpretation.
Check: are the legal arguments understandable, and do the PR messages hold up legally?
When providing communicative support for legal proceedings, it is essential to coordinate the messages across all participants in terms of content, but also in terms of tone and timing. This can only be achieved if legal representatives and PR advisors interact with each other as equals and support each other in the interest of the client. In media relations, background discussions with selected journalists are often better suited than large press conferences or personal (and thus emotional) interviews. Lawyers can be brought in as respondents or even used as spokespersons, provided they have PR skills. Guest commentaries by legal experts in specialised media have also proven to be useful.
Litigation not only requires experienced advisors but also nerves of steel and perseverance.
Legal communications is often referred to as the big sister of crisis communications. And rightly so, if you look at the time span! The phases of the process, from investigations and negotiations to the pronouncement of judgement and often the subsequent appeal process, take a long time. Moreover, during the entire time, everything is under observation and is commented on: statements, facial expressions, gestures, clothing, overall impression of the appearance, etc. You must be prepared for this, and it requires a great deal of discipline from everyone involved. The procedure can also overshadow all other communicative messages of a company for the entire course of the proceedings, so it is necessary to closely coordinate all communication measures.