The premise of this blog, Duets, suggests a certain harmony results when law and marketing play together. Is the same true for the law and public relations, a discipline that is part marketing and part business management? 

It brings to mind vintage perceptions of lawyers providing counsel as media swarm people exiting a courthouse. Classic Perry Mason, the attorney and client dismiss the reporters with the familiar, “No comment.” 

This simple statement technically says nothing but really says everything. 

With that perspective, some might think that attorneys and public relations practitioners are at odds. The legal point of view: Say as little as possible. The PR recommendation: Communicate openly and frequently with everyone in every possible way.

At the heart of public relations, it’s about building trust through action and communication. What an organization or person does and how much is or isn’t said as well as the sincerity, context and credibility of the messenger all contribute to the perception of truth and reputation.

On one level it’s simple: say what you mean and do what you say. Yet we know it’s far more challenging than that, especially today with an overwhelming number of online and offline connections. 

Today, it’s not just relationships between people, but relationships with brands and with ideas. Amazon’s Kindle has tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and even community initiatives such as have nearly 7,000 fans on Facebook

Heck, I have enough trouble communicating and showing my interest and concern for the people I care about without worrying about the followers of my company and its brand on Twitter! Yet, I do – in business, we have to — take these brand relationships seriously and work to nurture trust and mutually beneficial interactions. 

It would be easy to say “no comment” or simply post nothing, yet there is an expectation and obligation to act and communicate. What did commentary by Bernie Madoff or Michael Jackson make you think? How did it impact your perceptions of them, their businesses and industries?

As we build and represent brands, there is an increasing need to protect these brands – legally via trademarks and copyright – and equally important, an increasing need to build brand trust through communication. That’s the potentially beautiful duet that can play when legal and PR counsel work in harmony to comment or not to comment as the situation dictates.

Rose McKinney, Risdall McKinney Public Relations

  • First of all, No Comment like not communicating has simply become old school . . . in management and in the law. The new generation of senior leaders and lawyers is more willing to talk, even when they are defendants. What has remained the same is management’s arrogance, greed based motivation, and the denial of having done anything that requires anything other than a minimal response, much real explanation, or an apology.
    More to your point though, communication and the law are two distinct staff disciplines, which of necessity need to operate with some separation. Lawyers tend to want other staff functions and consultants to join with them in speaking with one voice to the client. My perspective has always been that the client is my client rather than the lawyers or any other staff advisory function.
    The client deserves my independent voice. If my advice conflicts with the attorney’s then we go to the client, and the client decides.
    I also believe that I can teach the attorneys how to be better lawyers in the courtroom, even with their clients and the case. In one current case I convinced the client, a defendant in a toxic tort case to establish a rather extensive web site as a preemptive strategy.
    The attorneys, who were hired after I was, took a look at the site, took a deep breath, and then spent a day with me walking them through the site and the communication strategy.. As they left, the lead attorney told me I had pretty much helped him complete preparation of his opening argument.
    I told him that if he came back for another session we could finish his closing argument as well.
    Our profession needs to stop the whining about other consultants, especially the attorneys and bear down on what matters. My advice to the client about attorneys usually arises when I see them give bad advice, waste a lot of time (big meetings with rooms full of consultants), or make excuses for failure. I tell the client to get better lawyers at the earliest possible time.
    Rememebr the odds of any civil or criminal case goig to trial is less that 1 in 150. The case will be settled, abitrated, or dropped. This is another reason why the communication strategy is so important.
    I also give other unsolicited legal advice where a change in the legal strategy might enhance our ability to tell our story, usually to better help the victims or reach a settlement that avoids courtroom time.
    That’s what the law and litigation really boil down to, who is the most interesting, trustworthy, persuasive and believable storyteller. Any communicator should be able to help with that.

  • Some very valid points here. No comment doesn’t really work anymore. The original guest post was written on August 4, 2009. Less than 4 months later, in late November 2009, Tiger Woods proved that no comment is a flawed PR strategy. I dedicated an entire guest blog on this site in January to the Tiger Woods scandal from a marketing perspective.
    The Tiger Woods scandal began with a late night car accident, soon after a report had surfaced in the National Enquirer about an extramarital affair. Tiger Woods did not address the situation publicly until February 19, almost 3 full months after the incident became newsworthy. It was a major failure on his part and a part of the reason why he lost so many of his endorsements.
    The road back for Tiger will be long, but the best thing that he can do is excel on the golf course. His golf performances since his comeback at The Masters in Augusta, Georgia in April have been mixed. He has not won a tournament since the scandal broke. He finished 4th at The Masters and US Open, but didn’t perform well in some lesser tournaments and the British Open. Playing well will be the quickest way for the public to forget about the scandal and regain some lucrative endorsement contracts.