How to manage PR in the midst of litigation

There are some times when it’s extremely complicated and challenging to manage your outbound communications and image – and I would say that when a company is in the midst of litigation is one of the hardest.

At the root of the issue – almost regardless of the case in question – is the ability to manage your message and to control your narrative. On the one hand, legal counsel will generally stipulate that a ‘no comment’ strategy be put in place as it is standard practice to not comment on pending litigation.

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On the other hand, no commentary creates a vacuum which, while not always negative, often means journalists or the public will fill with information from elsewhere. And in today’s world of always-on news and social media, anyone with an opinion – no matter how uninformed – can easily skew the story in ways that are at best distracting and at worst damaging.

So what’s the best thing to do in situations like these?

Never comment on the day-to-day aspects of any legal proceedings – the more you say, the more chance you have of getting trapped into answering questions you or your legal team may wish to avoid.

If you do find yourself faced with reporters, customers, partners or other parties asking those questions, here are some of the guidelines to follow:

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  • Let the reporter know that you cannot comment on any pending litigation and refer them to the court record in which they found the suit. Do, however, reiterate your commitment to fighting all allegations in court and denying the charges at hand, if appropriate.

  • In the event the case at hand has some merit – perhaps a product you released to the market didn’t meet the standards it should – don’t wait for a second court case to emerge. Fix the problem in question. While a good communications strategy can help rebuild a brand post one case, a number of repeating litigations is tough to recover from.

  • Be prepared for whatever verdict may be delivered. Following the recent decision by the European Commission that Apple should pay $13 billion of corporate income taxes to Ireland as reimbursement for what the Commission declared to be illegal state aid, Apple CEO Tim Cook immediately responded to the decision in a public letter. This calmly and clearly outlined the company’s disagreement with the decision and its intention to appeal. But more importantly it told the story of Apple’s 30-year investment in Ireland and the broader European economy. And it cited the fact that that Apple is the large taxpayer in Ireland, the US and the world. It was evident that Apple anticipated the verdict but had clearly prepared how best to respond. In doing so, it immediately regained some semblance of control amid the ‘tax-dodging corporate’ press coverage.

  • Distinguish between internal and external stakeholders and tailor your message accordingly. While it is not appropriate to issue public updates regarding the status of your case, the situation may be different for your board and your shareholders.

  • Lastly, ensure your litigation and communications team are a partnership. Close coordination between your legal and PR strategies is vital to maximize the efforts of both.

At some point, almost all companies have their day in court. And while litigation is rarely a welcome experience from a communications perspective, it doesn’t have to result in cycles of negative publicity. With careful positioning, a company can emerge from the process with its brand firmly in place.