PR fought the law – and the law won


This is an article by Aimee Burge.
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Public relations professionals and lawyers often work together.  PR executives ask for advice from lawyers and lawyers turn to PR consultants for advice on communications and reputation.

The working relationship between the two professions is particularly interesting during a crisis.  In such times representatives from both areas are usually called upon to work with the organisation in question.  Both professions work on behalf of the company to offer guidance and support but their differing interests often results in contradictory advice being offered.  Where a lawyer will often advise a company to say very little or say ‘no comment’ for fear of admitting legal liability and guilt, a PR adviser will encourage a client to communicate openly and be honest about the situation.

Pouring oil on troubled water

The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was the worst environmental disaster the US has ever seen.  BP, which portrays itself as an eco-friendly organisation, quickly became associated with the disaster.  However, BP failed to take immediate responsibility and played down the severity of the crisis.  While oil continued to spill into the ocean at a tremendous rate, and photos of oil-covered wildlife were beamed across the world, BP pointed the blame at anyone they could.

They announced to the media and the public that approximately a thousand barrels of oil was reaching the water a day. However independent estimates suggested it was in fact around sixty thousand barrels.  BP failed to provide honest and open details.  The company should have ensured their facts were correct before publishing them and openly disclosed even the most terrible consequences “lest you be forced to backtrack and slide into the death spiral of lost credibility,” according to Peter S. Goodman writing in the New York Times.

‘In times of crisis, communications professionals and lawyers often pursue conflicting agendas,’  he continues.  “Communications strategists are inclined to mollify public anger with expressions of concern, while lawyers warn that contribution can be construed as admissions of guilt in potentially expensive lawsuits.”

The lack of remorse from BP for the families of the rig workers who died in the explosion and for the destruction to the wildlife and communities was clear when the CEO, Tony Hayward suggested he wanted the disaster to be over with so he could get on with his life.  He also added that “the amount of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

Public opinion waned and the media portrayed the company in a very poor light.  It appeared that the company was so intent on avoiding legal action that they completely neglected to consider the harm they were doing to their reputation.  They were far from being seen by the public as an organisation that cared about the environment – the qualities that were central to its identity.

Win the battle, lose the war

Andy Green, PR consultant and author, suggests that a legal team can put forward an argument knowing that they are presenting a one-off case and that they will not face the same jury again.  In contrast the PR practitioner has to live with the jury, week-in, week-out and so needs to be mindful of their future relations: they cannot mislead or they face the risk of not being believed on future occasions.  Thus whilst BP’s legal team seemingly advised them against taking immediate responsibility for fear this was evidence that could be used in the court room, the PR advisers would have been reluctantly watching BP’s whole future reputation disintegrate.

Lawyers and PR consultants are “usually addressing different audiences and it is at that point that the strategic approaches of the two professions begin to differ,” according to Edward J Lordan.

Even if BP had been honest from the start the general public would still show dismay at such a disaster but it is likely that, had BP showed deep sorrow for their mistake, they would have been painted in a better light – after all we all make mistakes.

The relationship between law and PR is certainly apparent in a very current topic in the media – the use of super injunctions.  Super injunctions are an example of legal advice being taken above that of public relations.  A super injunction is, as I sure you are now aware, a legal gagging order preventing details of a story being released by the media.

Aimee Burge

When someone in the public eye has done something wrong that could damage their reputation they can seemingly choose to either follow legal advice or PR advice – both with different outcomes.  Whilst the lawyer would ensure that the details the defendant wants covered up are just that, the PR consultant would most likely advise the person in question to admit they made a mistake, show deep regret and seize the opportunity to quash any rumours.

However, taking legal advice can result in going even further against PR advice; it can be argued that despite putting a super injunction in place to evade media interest, it does the actual opposite.

“It is about as effective as leaving your kids at home and saying, ‘Your Christmas presents are hidden upstairs don’t go looking for them'” according to Paul Smith writing in the industry paper The Drum.

Andrew Marr, the broadcast journalist, recently admitted to putting a super injunction in place to hide his affair.  However now it is out in the open, he faces the double backlash over the original wrongdoing and the fact that he tried to cover it up.  His reputation will surely take a double hit as a result.

A premiership football has similarly taken out a super injunction to prevent reporting of his alleged affair with former Big Brother contestant Imogen Thomas.  It didn’t take long before speculation mounted – the internet and day-to-day conversations were filled with one name.  The more the situation is being dragged out, the greater the damage being done to his reputation.

Family man

The footballer is hardly coming across as the family man he was once portrayed as by thinking it is acceptable to throw money at a lawyer to cover up his illicit affair and carry on as normal.  By not admitting his mistake in the first place and remaining anonymous, it has allowed rumours to grow rapidly, rumours which he cannot defend.

There are constant stories in the media about people in the public eye having extra-marital affairs.  They are probably many you have forgotten about because they came forward, preached about how sorry they were and how much their family mean to them.  Similarly organisations occasionally have to recall products because of a fault in their production.  Following this honest admission, the whole situation is usually forgotten about a few weeks later.

The relationship between law and PR will no doubt continue to be tested but it is important for lawyers to remember the importance of PR.  After all, honesty is the best policy.

“When your company loses in the court of public opinion, it also loses its reputation, good name, and positive image – the very qualities that make for its success” writes crisis management expert Kathleen Fearn-Banks.

Sources

Kathleen Fearn-Banks (2007)  Crisis Communications:  A Casebook Approach, Third edition, Routledge

Peter S. Goodman (August 23, 2010) In Case of Emergency: What not to do, The New York Times

Edward J Lordan (2003)  Essentials of public relations management, Rowman & Littlefield

Comments

  1. This is so topical. We learn today that the ‘footballer-who-couldn’t-be-named’ (but whose name is now on everyone’s lips) spent an estimated £200,000 on legal advice.

    Hiring good PR advice would certainly have been cheaper – and couldn’t have done a worse job (assuming the objective to have been to keep his name out of the public domain).

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