The recent clamour around the Sushant Singh Rajput case has shown how and why does managing the public and the media perceptions matter in high profile litigation cases. Lawyers from both sides have incessantly given interviews to the media and have opined in a number of platforms including social media outlets regarding their take on the case. Such an active involvement by lawyers in high-profile litigations is required in order to prevent circulation of fake news or the formulation of an adverse public opinion. Recently, the media reported that the CBI has stated that there was no murder, while the CBI refuted these claims and asserted that the investigation is still on. If you were the lawyer, handling this case, it was important that you ensured that the right story goes out to the media. Hence, handling high-profile litigation does not only involve drafting pleadings and arguing the case, it also involves managing the attention around it.
Speed is the key. One should have their PR strategies for high profile litigations in place. Not only should one manage their version of the facts but also keep abreast of what the other side is up to. In this age of social media, where news travels faster than light, it is important to have the "correct" picture out. This article will discuss what are the key components to include in your PR strategy while handling high profile litigations.
Key Components of a PR Strategy to Handle High Profile Litigations
What the public thinks is often critical in high profile litigations. Moreover, if your client is a hotshot Bollywood actor or a corporate tycoon, he would want you to handle not only his case but his image as well. Hence, it is always important to have a sound PR strategy in place. Some of the key components to be included in a PR strategy for high-profile litigations are:
Maintaining an active social media presence
Being digitally active is the key to an effective PR strategy. Engage a competent firm to project the brand image popular sites such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook etc, and keep abreast of the latest happenings on these platforms. It always pays to be in the know of what is happening. Speed and agility matter. Imagine, someone disparages your client on Twitter and you get to know a week later. That would be too late for damage control. If you are handling a high-profile litigation, you should have a team always scouring the social media platforms to assess the public perception towards your client. This would keep you one step ahead than the opposite party.
Managing the Media
In this age where media can vilify anyone and everyone, it is extremely important to have the media on your side. Maintain good relations with reputed media houses. Even before there is clamour on social media, make sure that you get out a good word in the print media about your client. This would help you in rebutting any false or troubling narratives that may come up later. Remember, social media has a lot of irrelevant and fake information, its your job to quell the rumours and put out the "correct facts". Use news sites with a higher domain authority or more powerful keywords. This would make the news you want to put out reach more people than the misinformation being spread. Having a good relationship with journalists is also important. This would help you in remedying any factually incorrect information being circulated against your client faster and more effectively.
Managing adverse judgments
Another important key component of a good litigation PR strategy is the art of managing adverse judgments. When an adverse decision is rendered against your client, often the public perception turns negative, media houses start their tarnishing campaigns and the public image of your client is susceptible to take a hit. In such a situation, one should know how to handle the situation, even before the judgment is delivered. Have your press releases and quotes ready in advance. Ideally, you should have someone present in the courtroom, who gives you real-time updates so that you can formulate your strategy and modify your quotes if required. Aim to keep the media attention focussed on the good points. Portray the humility with which your client would accept an adverse judgment. The key lies in maintaining a good image, even if the judgment is unfavourable.
Settlement PR strategy
Sometimes high-profile litigations, are resolved through settlements, as neither side wants to sully their reputation. As a lawyer, apprise your client of the reputational damage that may be caused, if the case is allowed to run its course. Encourage them to go in for a settlement. Highlighting the benefits of a settlement would prevent your client from being dragged through the mud or being subjected to an unwanted media trial.
Manage the messaging
The message to be sent out to the public should always be reviewed and vetted by a competent lawyer / law firm so as to not create any unnecessary negative public perception. Sometimes, high profile cases lead to a lot mud-slinging. It is your job to educate your client to react in a calm and composed way. Similarly, a lawyer should remind his client that loose public statements may have unintended or unimagined legal and other ramifications and hence, each word spoken or written in public should be carefully assessed and measured. No public releases or media statements should go out before the lawyer reviewing the same. It is pertinent for the lawyer to understand the implications of a lawsuit for his client.
Manage the brand and the image
Typically, a celebrity or a high-profile personality risks not only his reputation but also his financial and professional opportunities, if he/she is embroiled in a litigation. Even trivial pieces of information then can be misused and a negative perception may be created which may cause the public to boycott the celebrity or his work. Hence, it is extremely important to manage the image and the personal brand of the celebrity. His/her social media accounts should be strictly scrutinised by the litigation PR team. No, untoward tweets or any insensitive pictures which may impact the case, should go out to the public.
Ensure that the complete story goes out
Outcomes of litigation sometimes may not be as simple as a win or a loss. Sometimes, while technically the verdict is in favour of your client, the other side may have gotten away with lesser liability. Hence, it is important that you ensure that the entire picture goes out to the media. The litigation PR team should be wary of selective reporting.
Appealing to fair judgement
When you are dealing with high-profile clients, the newspapers would routinely carry news items about them and judges do read newspapers. Though, India does not have a jury system, an incessant media trial and reputation damaging information being circulated in the media may have an adverse bearing on your client's case. For instance, in the Sushant Singh Rajput case, the media through their investigative journalism brought a lot of facts to the notice of the investigating agencies. As a lawyer, you need to ensure that no such information which may have an adverse bearing on the outcome of your case or which may compel adverse judgements come out in the media. This requires you to cultivate good relationship with media personnel and know beforehand what stories about your client are going out. At the same time, you also need to keep a check on what information is the opposite side putting out.
Appealing to the emotional side of the public
People look up to celebrities, hence any digression by them is looked as an unpardonable sin. The image and esteem they hold in the eyes of the public is extremely important, be it a Bollywood star, a businessman or a politician. Hence, it is extremely crucial to create a PR strategy which shows your client's humane side to the public. Make sure to circulate stories and information which would make the public see your client as a good person who is being victimized rather than a rich person who is trying to get away with impunity. Arranging interviews, press conferences etc. go a long way in enabling your client to present their side of the view. However, make sure that the client does not utter any statement which may go against the case or adversely impact the case.
In a high profile litigation, one needs to realise, that legal assistance is not limited only to the legal points raised in a courtroom but goes beyond it. The client does not only want a win but also a smooth sailing through the litigation process and wants to come out with his reputation intact. In order to provide such holistic services, it is pertinent that one has a sound litigation PR strategy in place. Make sure, that you engage the right professional firm from the beginning. This would assure an unsullied image/brand.
Dr. Vinod Surana is the Managing Partner & CEO of Surana & Surana International Attorneys. Views are Personal.