By Robert Leaf
When I started in public relations quite a few years ago, it was rare to find public relations practitioners, whether in-house or external, working closely with legal departments. And if the truth be known there was from the PR side sometime an unexpressed hostility. Lawyers felt their role was simply to win the case or advise a chief executive on the potential legal liability of a proposed course of action. At that time very little thought was given to the public relations ramifications of the case or action. If there was a difference in opinion, the chief executive usually listened to the lawyers.
There were exceptions, possibly the best known relating to Tylenol, one of the world’s most famous crisis management case histories, and one that taught in many U.S. universities. An unknown person injected poison into some Tylenol tablets in a Chicago store—an action that sadly cost a few customers their lives.
While Jim Burke, chairman of the parent company, Johnson & Johnson, was told by his legal advisors that the parent company could in no way be held responsible and that no action was necessary, he felt otherwise. He believed Johnson & Johnson, which had a sterling reputation with the American public, could not risk having that reputation tarnished in any way. He decided to have all Tylenol bottles removed from all shelves everywhere they were sold, a move that cost the company $100 million dollars.
This was a decision with which even some of his senior executives disagreed. Burke then had the company change their packaging to ensure to the public this could never happen again. Burson-Marsteller held a press briefing taking place simultaneously in six major U.S. cities when a new packaging that prevented the kind of tampering that took place was announced. The favorable coverage the company received was monumental and Tylenol went right back to its position as the number one in its field.
Today, Jim Burke would not be such an exception. Times have changed dramatically and the legal profession appreciates this. A recent BritishAmerican Business organization event I attended was comprised of a legal panel from member companies and the relationship between law and PR was a major topic. The chief lawyer for a major American gas company said he now never thinks of the possible results of litigation without also considering “how it would appear on the front page of the New York Times.” This philosophy was echoed by other panelists and members of the audience.
No clearer example exists of the lawyer’s expanded role than Robert Amsterdam, partner in the legal firm of Amsterdam & Peroff and a leading member of a defense team in what has become one of the most publicized legal battles of recent years, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s fight against President Putin of Russia. Media interest was vast and the defense team’s well-founded belief it was participating in a show trial led it to developing a carefully thought out defense strategy that included fighting a political trial in the press as well as in the courts.
A two-page profile of Amsterdam in Business Week stressed the public relations role he has taken as he continues the fight on behalf of his client because of his strong belief in his client’s innocence. The magazine noted that “where ever Amsterdam goes these days a spotlight is sure to follow. He lobbies the European Union to press for new hearings, speaks at conferences, writes legal papers and pitches himself to the media. Thus he has been able to keep his client’s case alive.”
The magazine also quotes another client, the general counsel of the Four Seasons Hotel chain, which he represented in a case in Venezuela: “He uses the law but brings many other things to bear on the problem.”
While the Khodorkovsky case was unique, the changing role of lawyers is not. According to Amsterdam, two factors have had a major impetus in marrying law with public relations. The first is the increased activity of many companies in emerging markets— from China, Russia and India to smaller countries in South America and Africa—an area in which Amsterdam has been extremely active.
“It is vital for lawyers to be aware of the public relations ramifications of what a company does in both the emerging market itself and the home market and these can differ dramatically” Amsterdam states, “And in today’s rapidly changing world and its constantly changing political emphasis there is a greater chance than ever before that the company in an emerging market or their staff can end up in criminal litigation which obviously has a PR impact. So they have got to be extremely careful from the time they enter the market and as long they continue to operate there. And I have found a far greater awareness of the public relations ramifications with the lawyers I am working with in these markets.
“The other area binding PR and law concerns corporate social responsibility, a subject I get involved in with nearly all my clients. During the planning and implementation periods many legal questions can surface. At the same time the public relations aspects involved remain primary because there is no sense launching programs of this type without an explanation of why.”
Amsterdam is correct. Corporate social responsibility has become one of the hot buttons of the decade. It is creating growing interest among employees, customers, governments and NGOs and even among security analysts who feel it can have an impact on the stock. So it is not surprising that the legal department gets involved early on and remains involved.
In talking to many internal public relations executives, they note they have found themselves working increasingly alongside the internal legal staff. One internal PR head commented to me, “In the last two to three years I have probably had more serious contact with the company’s legal staff than in the 15 previous years.”
Another reason for the closeness is that PR practitioners, both internal and external, have become much savvier in dealing with litigation PR in recent years making it much easier for the two groups to work together both in the planning and implementation segments.
Message training, an area in which I remain very active, is further proof of the growing relationship. Message training is usually referred to as media training but in reality many senior people I have trained are responsible for spreading the company’s messages to a wide group of audiences that do not include media but do have a major impact on other audiences such as governments, banks, local communities, and employees. It is important that executives become as proficient as possible in reaching these audiences in the most effective and believable manner. Recently the regional chief executive of one of the world’s largest companies insisted that I include his general counsel in our message training program.
There is no doubt in my mind that this trend will continue to gather momentum Just as public relations is expanding dramatically, so too will the role of lawyers. As we have seen in this century, governments, government bodies, political parties, NGOs, and corporations are increasing their use of communications and are becoming more and more professional in their demands. The overall program often includes activities with definite legal ramifications.
It is therefore becoming vital that the PR and legal departments start working together in both the overall planning stage and as the program continues to ensure the best interests of the company are protected.
Robert S. Leaf is chairman of Robert S. Leaf Consultants.