Lawyers and law firms should look no further than today’s headlines for examples of what to and what not to do when it comes to effective public relations.
The Public Relations Society of America defines public relations as “a strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” For law firms, the “publics” typically fall into a handful of categories that include clients, potential clients, judges, other lawyers and, yes, the public.
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This week, two stories are dominating headlines in politics and sports, and both provide great insights on why law firms should always be above board in their public relations efforts. I advise my lawyer clients never to stretch the truth and certainly never to lie when faced with a public relations matter or crisis communications situation. Here’s why:
You Can’t Hide Your Lying Lies
The biggest current example of a PR no-no can be found in the continuing controversy over the 2016 “Trump Tower meeting.”
A series of conflicting responses have emerged in the year since The New York Times broke the news about the secret meeting between a group of Kremlin-tied Russians and members of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for president.
The Trump camp initially claimed the get-together was about a program tied to the adoption of Russian children. But later, Donald Trump Jr.’s emails showed the meeting was prefaced on the promise that the Russians would provide damaging information on then-candidate Hillary Clinton.
At the time, everyone in the elder Trump’s circle, including his personal lawyer, denied that the President had a role in drafting the initial misleading explanation for why the meeting took place.
The reason this story is now back in the news and causing problems for those involved isn’t about Don Jr.’s apparent lie more than a year ago. It’s because a new Twitter message issued by President Trump points to the likelihood of even more lies.
In the message sent last weekend, the President flatly states that the 2016 meeting was “to get information on an opponent,” while saying nothing about Russian adoptions.
Faced with this tweet and another disclosure from the NY Times that the President drafted Don Jr.’s original statement, one of the President’s lawyers has been telling the media that he had “bad information” when he went on TV news shows last year and denied that his client had any involvement.
Cover-Ups Are Always Worse
If you are a sports fan, then you know the other major PR story of the week probably is getting more airtime than the brouhaha over the Trump Tower meeting. Of course, I’m talking about Urban Meyer being placed on administrative leave as head coach of The Ohio State University football team.
Meyer has built a national championship-winning program since joining the Buckeyes as head coach in 2012. Two weeks ago, reporter Brett McMurphy published a story detailing allegations of domestic abuse against Ohio State wide receivers coach and Meyer’s longtime professional colleague Zach Smith.
Meyer fired Smith the same day the story was published. The next day, Meyer told a group of reporters that he knew about an incident in 2009 when Smith was arrested for alleged domestic violence, but he denied knowing about similar claims made by Smith’s then-wife in 2015.
Unfortunately for Meyer, Smith’s now ex-wife then went public with claims that she believed Meyer was aware of the 2015 incident because she and Meyer’s wife had discussed it extensively, including trading text messages.
Ohio State responded by placing Meyer on administrative leave, and the school has launched an investigation that it says it hopes to conclude within the next two weeks. Meyer has since admitted he knew about the allegations against Smith in 2015, saying he “failed” when he misled reporters with his initial denial.
Truth Will Set You Free
While it may be obvious at this point, the PR lesson provided in two examples above is simple: always tell the truth.
Of course, the PR implications would still have been bad for Urban Meyer if he had acknowledged knowing about a three-year-old domestic violence claim against an assistant coach, although he very well may have been eventually forgiven in the court of public opinion. “He had bad judgment, but at least he didn’t cover it up,” some would say.
But Meyer completely failed the truth test by denying something that he eventually admitted only when faced with text messages that were sent to his own wife. Regardless of what the public thinks, that move may well cost Meyer his $7.6 million annual salary.
More consequentially, the apparent fibs surrounding the Trump Tower meeting may have more dire consequences than bad PR or getting fired from a high-paying job. You know, like taking down the leader of the free world or spending a few years in federal prison.
Importance of Straight Shooters
The previously referenced “mutually beneficial relationships” that accompany effective public relations include a few requirements. For lawyers, the first expectation from the media and the public is that you (or your client) are being truthful.
Being a straight shooter will cause reporters to treat you and your client more fairly. It will also confirm for your clients that they’re working with the right lawyer. If you break that trust with a demonstrable lie, then you will lose the benefit of those relationships and be forced to start over from square one.
For example, I remember a Dallas law firm that everyone and their mother knew was on the verge of collapse in the mid-1990s. We all were surprised when the same firm was featured in a front-page story about how they were debuting a new management system and adding more lawyers.
It was soon learned that the reporter had been duped when the firm announced it was closing only a few weeks later. After that, the same reporter wrote a series of unflattering articles exposing the ugly details of the firm’s demise. I wondered afterward if she would have been a little less harsh in her coverage if they had simply told her what was going on.
But what about the times when the truth is bad for me or my client? In cases where it is simply not appropriate for my clients or their clients to begin telling their side of the story, there are still ways to be truthful and/or helpful that fall within the bounds of effective public relations.
For example, if the question involves a court case, it is perfectly acceptable to issue a statement like what you probably have heard before:
“While I understand the interest in this case and would like to provide more information about the facts, my client and I have decided to not comment out of respect for the legal process while the court considers this matter.”
It’s that simple. Say the truth or say little to nothing. Nobody wants to be known as a fibber. That goes double for lawyers.
Bruce Vincent is a writer and editor who has helped lawyers in all facets of public relations and crisis communications for more than two decades. He believes cheaters never win and says his pants have never been on fire. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how he can help you put your best PR foot forward.