PR and Attorneys: Defending Clients in the Courts of Law & Public Opinion 

By T.J. Winick

Every week, there’s inevitably some well-known brand that, typically in pursuit of increased revenue, misreads its stakeholders and takes a serious reputational hit as a result. From all appearances, the crisis could have been averted had public relations and issues management professionals been looped in from the get-go.     

One such instance occurred this year when Zoom updated its terms of service so that images, sound, and other content from meetings could be used to train artificial intelligence algorithms. Predictably, its users, who have certain expectations around privacy, were outraged when a report in August highlighted the move. It didn’t take long for the video conferencing platform to walk back its decision, promising not to use customer-generated content to train AI.

In this particular instance and in plenty of others, attorneys, whether in-house counsel or from an outside firm, need to consider the reputational risks of such decisions. After all, repercussions don’t just include reputational damage; there’s potentially the loss of significant revenue. PR professionals can prompt legal counsel and members of the C-suite to think through these scenarios and ensure stakeholder expectations around the brand’s performance are being met.

The reality of 24-hour media means being bombarded by an unrelenting stream of news and information, and expectations around corporate transparency and accountability are at an all-time high. As a result, a partnership between legal and public relations professionals is vital to ensure that strategies are aligned. Each plays a distinct role but shares the common goal of protecting their client.

Here are other ways that the PR and legal partnership can prove invaluable:

  • While calculated and precise language is necessary in a court of law, the PR professional specializes in a more colloquial style of communication. Legal language is designed to be factual, and so can be blunt. On the flip side, language drafted by a PR professional is intended for public consumption and is more nuanced. PR pros are skilled at taking complex speech or jargon and distilling that into easily digestible information for a mass audience or key stakeholder group, while also sanding out the rough edges.
  • Thanks to social media, cease-and-desist letters are easily criticized and mocked and they’re increasingly a part of traditional media coverage. That’s why legal counsel should view these communications as a potential PR opportunity rather than strictly a legal action. Instead of filing a cease-and-desist letter with only threatening legalese, we suggest softening the tone whenever possible. That way, if it’s leaked or otherwise shared publicly, it will depict a thoughtful and understandable request as opposed to a tirade intended to intimidate. While the latter might help ensure an airtight legal strategy, it can easily come back to bite a brand, portraying it as vengeful and heavy-handed.
  • A crisis issue or event tends to be fluid, which is why it’s critical to continually assess whether the current strategy is the best possible path forward. These evaluations could mean everything from monitoring office chatter and social media for unexpected new developments to identifying triggers on the calendar for public attention or media coverage. Think court appearances, quarterly earnings reports, a shareholder meeting, or a planned demonstration outside company headquarters.

Whether it’s high-profile business decisions like Zoom’s or other issues that place a brand squarely in the spotlight, PR pros provide value when they support legal counsel and members of the C-suite—not just in responding to a crisis, but in helping them think through the potential reputational damage that could result from their future actions.


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