Lawfuel | May 2021
Litigation PR is increasingly popular overseas . . and catching on in New Zealand, lead by a two-woman power team
Litigation PR is an interesting concept. In many countries using PR to support a legal case has matured beyond being considered part of crisis communications into its own speciality, yet in New Zealand, are we slow in adopting PR as a tool in the litigation armoury?
Lawfuel asked Bronwynne Howse and Suzanne Joyce who run communications firm Joyce & Howse Consulting, about the role of litigation PR and how to use it effectively to make a difference in a legal action.
It’s about reputation and credibility, Bronwynne told us.
“The success of an organisation, or an individual, is built on the strength of their reputation and regardless of what side you’re on, being involved in a legal action is highly likely to have an impact. The role of litigation PR is to help the organisation [or individual] and their legal team navigate the reputational challenges associated with litigation.
Often asked why anyone would want to proactively seek media coverage for a legal action, Bronwynne says “PR is not solely about media and being proactive relates to developing the right strategy to support the desired legal outcome. It doesn’t always involve actively talking about the case.”
By definition, litigation public relations is the management of the communications process during the course of any legal dispute or adjudicatory processing so as to affect the outcome or its impact on the client’s overall reputation (Haggerty, 2003).
While she’d like to see PR used in more legal cases in New Zealand, Bronwynne Howse believes we’re still making assumptions that cases are best fought in the courtroom, media will quickly move on to something else, if you keep your head down, it’ll go away, and any response during litigation should be “no comment”.
“These assumptions are simply wrong,” she says.
“Regardless of the type and size of the case or whether you are the plaintiff or defendant, there’s a chance it will attract media interest and it can be a big mistake to get involved in any legal action without thinking about how it might be reported, even if you don’t think it will.
“Unfortunately, and we see this happening far too often, people either provide comment or use ‘no comment’ without taking the time to understand the impact of what’s being said. The problem is whatever gets published in the media sticks around forever and the court of public opinion can be really powerful which can be challenging reputationally and diminish the credibility of the litigation.
Suzanne Joyce adds “Ideally, before initiating or responding to legal action, a well-planned communications plan that complements the legal strategy, should be put in place because even if it doesn’t invite widespread media attention, it’ll still attract the interest of key stakeholders.”
The point about litigation PR maturing beyond issues or crisis communications is interesting. Litigation PR is far more regulated and requires knowledge of the rules of engagement to ensure what is said and given to media doesn’t end up having adverse consequences.
This requires a specific skill set which could be argued is more likely to be found in law firms than PR consultancies.
Supporting a legal strategy with communications is definitely complex. Both partners in th e firm have professional services backgrounds.
“I trained as lawyer and Bronwynne a chartered accountant; both of us having worked for large firms. Combining these skills with our communications experience means we understand what’s required to navigate the complexity of a legal case and execute a strategy that aligns rather than prejudices with the legal process, provides credibility, protects reputations
“Internationally, we’re seeing a trend for qualified lawyers to join PR consultancies to assist in providing specialist litigation PR to clients. Being familiar with complex legal contexts and sensitivities is definitely an advantage but this needs to be linked to the skills a communications expert brings to the table.
High Profile Cases
Joyce & Howse have been involved in a number of high-profile legal cases such as the Kiwifruit Claim, assisting the group of kiwifruit growers who took on the Crown for the PSA incursion.
Bronwynne Howse explains “When we get involved, we work closely with the team, which can include funder LPF Group, to understand the legal facts and strategy, assess risks and determine what’s needed to provide credibility and protect reputations. There are often objectives, such as seeking financial compensation, which are entirely legitimate but could actually be perceived in a completely different light by the public. Our role is to manage those conflicts and frame the narrative to explain ‘the why’ to support the legal action.”
“How we do that is different for every case, but we usually start by simplifying the complex legal facts and framing the story to suit an external audience. Depending on the agreed approach, we then begin to engage with media to provide background briefings. Legal action can be lengthy which means we’re constantly supporting key milestones by [re]telling the story and framing the issues to positively impact perceptions. Litigation PR requires a different approach to writing and distributing a media release or sending pages of court filings and hoping for the best.”
There is also a major branding opportunity for law firms using good litigation PR strategies, particularly in the age of social media where news spreads with instant effect.
Reputation and brand are the primary ways that firms are winning new work, according to the 2019 Citi Hildebrandt Client Advisory. a report that found that during 2010-2017, law firm growth in the US, where litigation PR is considerably more prevalent, was determined more by brand reputation than rates.
Brand strength, along with product focus, is one of the most “highly rewarded traits” of a law firm in today’s market, the advisory says. There may be no better way to boost a law firm’s brand than through the visibility and publicity that can come from an effective litigation-focused PR strategy, used with a judicious awareness of public, ethical and legal concerns.
In New Zealand journalists who frequently cover court cases, and many will attend actual proceedings. With a 24hour news cycle, reporters don’t always have the time to read and comprehend complex court arguments or attend the entire court proceeding, but need accurate information, quickly.
Legal PR professionals who know about a case, a judgment or some other aspect of a legal proceeding that might attract high interest can provide journalists with a heads up, with a greater chance of having a quote or simply making the cut to publication in a manner that can have a significant impact on the public perception of a lawsuit.
Engaging with Media
“For lawyers who are in the middle of preparing and running a legal case, generally the last thing they need to be thinking about is interacting with journalists to convey the overarching message and ensure the case, and client, has credibility.
Part of our role is to act as a point of contact, providing background briefings and constant updates to help journalists gain a deep understanding of the case; allowing them to publish accurate and effective stories once information is allowed to be made public, Bronwynne Howse says.
“Regardless of whether a proactive or reactive approach is agreed, the alternative to not communicating, or at least not briefing and educating media, is that any stories published about the legal action will exclude why the legal action is important.”
As the old saying goes: even winners in the court can become losers in the court of public opinion. Unfortunately, the efforts to rebuild reputations after the dust has settled might not be enough to make a real difference.
“The quality and effectiveness of communication will often determine how the party to litigation is perceived by their public and in our view, every opportunity to communicate should be looked at as an opportunity to enhance reputation.”