Why PR must be part of your legal strategy

When facing legal trouble, you must also communicate with your customers and followers. Here’s why PR pros should be included when responding to questions of legal jeopardy.

The truth always comes to light.

There’s a chance whatever incident you’re worried about will pass without fanfare. You solve the issue quickly. You avert the need to make an uncomfortable public statement. Your customers continue enjoying your products and services, none the wiser.

Yet, what if that’s not how it plays out?

When a problem that goes beyond the normal hiccups of day-to-day business operations emerges, the wisest path is to assume the worst-case scenario. Prioritize your relationship with your customers by listening to your PR firm—not your legal team.

The prospect of litigation, with hefty legal fees and time tied up in the courtroom, might appear a bigger bogeyman than a run of bad press, but tarnishing your reputation with your customers comes with hidden costs you’ll be paying for years. That includes the business lost when prospects decide it prudent to avoid your company after a quick Google search pulls up incidents of questionable behavior and failure to take responsibility.

Savvy consumers can see right through the “CYA” language favored by legal departments and will be turned off by your transparent self-preservation. With your PR firm’s guidance, you can express reticence and acknowledge responsibility while also generating forgiveness and goodwill. After all, research shows that, in the case of medical errors, if a physician apologizes, it reduces the chance of ongoing litigation and decreases average payout by $32,000 (which shows that PR and legal can, in fact, work towards the same goals).

Media outlets no longer provide rational perspective on the day’s headlines. In a desperate scrabble for ad revenue, outlets capture our attention by tapping into our primal emotions. The most popular emotion du jour? Outrage. Negative feelings linger as a person scrolls through their feeds, encountering headlines designed to shock and disturb. Combine that with reduced nuance and flash judgment from the social media mob, and conditions are ripe for negative backlash. PR expertise will be absolutely essential when your company ends up caught in the crosshairs.

Any PR team worth its salt is well-versed in the highs-and-lows of the news cycle and can help you navigate its turbulence. They’ll help you stay focused on the only thing you can control: taking full ownership of your message. With their expertise, you can put out stories that shift public perception towards a narrative more aligned with reality and ensure your piece is heard.

Consider the phenomenon of “excitation transfer,” which suggests that excitement from different stimuli build upon each other, especially if energy from previous stimuli hasn’t been properly channeled and dispersed. The little things add up.

Take Facebook’s somewhat recent data breach scandal. First, consumers found out that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, working on behalf of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, had illegally gathered data on Facebook users through the use of a personality quiz called “thisisyourdigitallife.”

The truth slowly trickled out. The number of users who had their personal information exposed climbed—from 270,000 to 50 million, and finally all the way up to 87 million users.

Then, readers found out that Facebook had been aware of this privacy breach since 2015, a full two and a half years before the news broke.

Five days passed before the public heard anything from Facebook’s top executives, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg. When public statements were finally made, both sidestepped the words “apologize” or “sorry.” In the meantime, Facebook’s stock price fell by 10 percent.

Zuckerberg only agreed to give Congress testimonial after public backlash and media scrutiny made it near impossible for him to do otherwise. There were multiple points during the scandal where coherent and authentic communication from Facebook could have defused the public swell of emotion. Instead, avoidance and toothless non-apologies exacerbated the situation until Facebook had a full-fledged PR crisis on its hands.

Ideally, PR and legal teams should work together, each side using their expertise and finding common strategic ground. At the end of the day, both sides are invested in protecting the business, although priorities and methods may diverge.

Your legal team wants to keep you out of the courtroom; your PR consultants want to preserve your reputation. PR too often gets shunted to the side in an effort to alleviate risk, when the truth is that the consequences of improper PR management are greater, longer-lasting and more probable.

When you listen to your PR team, you can fully own your message, preserve your integrity, and bounce back from a public-facing mistake with equanimity and grace.

Christina Beavis is the COO of Vox Populi Registry.

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