What do you get when you put together a panel of two crisis PR executives and two high-profile reporters speaking to a group of law firm PR people? Answer: a wide-ranging discussion of PR/legal dynamics and how media and PR can work effectively on news relating to high-profile complex litigation.
They recently spoke at a meeting of Law Firm Media Professionals, a national association of in-house and outside PR and marketing professionals handling PR for law firms. Media panelists were David Margolick of Vanity Fair and Gabriel Sherman of New York Magazine, and crisis communications panelists were Allan Ripp and Jonathan Gasthalter.
Among the highlights were comments from Ripp, PR rep for Gretchen Carlson during her sexual harassment litigation with Roger Ailes and Fox News, and Sherman, the reporter who broke many Ailes stories.
Vetting the High-Profile Client First
Ripp, of Ripp Media, says he vets high-profile clients like Carlson first before being hired. "I wanted to make sure she had wherewithal and the courage to wade into such a case and that her story could hold up to intense media scrutiny." Once satisfied, he agreed to handle her PR.
Then it was left to figuring out the best time to file suit and execute PR, since Carlson's termination from Fox occurred just before July 4 heading into the 2016 conventions. The timing turned out in her favor since publicity surrounding her suit was so immediately intense that the day Donald Trump drew the Republican nomination in mid-July—which should have been Ailes' shining hour—was the day Ailes resigned as head of Fox News.
Referring to Sherman, Ripp says when he started reporting on the Carlson case and allegations about other women, "Fox wound up more on the defensive due to Gabe Sherman advancing the story. They went deeper in the bunker."
Sherman, who also wrote "The Loudest Voice in the Room," a book about Ailes, noted that Ailes' people and Fox "wanted to control the message." And when he wrote his book, Fox declined comment, refusing to return his calls.
When it came to the Carlson case reporting, he said, "Fox was not engaging me, period. It did not serve Ailes well."
At one point, Sherman notes, Fox, Ailes, Rupert Murdoch and 20th Century Fox's interests all diverged, so it helped him get information for stories.
While he agreed with a PR tactic of surrogates speaking for clients he said with the case of the Fox PR department, the surrogates they used to defend Ailes were "so devoid of reality" it hurt them.
The Full Story Hasn't Always Been Told in Initial Media Reports
For Margolick, formerly legal affairs correspondent for The New York Times, high-profile cases seem to come in bunches. He has written about Bill Cosby, Gawker, the Madoff sons and Washington, D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
He contacted Abramoff for an interview after much of the PR damage was done to the lobbyist, doing so directly to avoid PR interference, and started a conversation over common cultural background. "We bonded over our Jewishness," Margolick says. By that point, there were about 10,000 stories written about Abramoff.
Margolick says he starts out with big stories "under the assumption that they are more complicated than the press first made them out to be." A long-lead magazine like Vanity Fair gives him time and freedom.
Ripp has also seen high-profile cases in bunches. Before Carlson, he did PR for Martin Shkreli and Turing Pharma during the “pricing scandal” last year.
On that case, Ripp discussed having an unpredictable client. For example, Ripp was unaware that Shkreli had recently re-engaged him to handle his press "until I saw that he'd announced on Twitter to direct all PR queries to me."
In his original engagement with Shkreli, Ripp represented Turing as a pharma startup throughout 2015, but that exploded after the company announced a 5000% price increase of Daraprim, and Turing's in-house PR executive abruptly resigned. "Suddenly, a firehose of consumer outrage was directed my way," Ripp says.
Ripp wishes Turing and Shkreli had more opportunity to rebut critics. When Shkreli appeared before Congress his lawyers made him invoke the Fifth Amendment. "His smirking appearance left a poor impression—which is unfortunate, since Martin is extremely articulate and could have done a masterful job explaining why Turing was not denying patients the use of its drug," Ripp said.
Look Beyond the Media in a Crisis to Other Stakeholders
Gasthalter of Gasthalter & Co., meanwhile, has represented some of the world’s most prominent hedge fund managers and major global publicly traded corporations during high-stakes litigation.
Gasthalter says in a high-profile case or a crisis, PR people should look beyond the press to other stakeholders like customers and employees, as they are in many cases more important than media. He stressed that letters sent out to these constituents could make their way into the media, as once it “leaves an executive’s desk, it should be considered a public document.”
He also believes that PR people need to be aware of the downside of doing something in a crisis and understand the legal risks. "What messages do you want to get out and [what is] the timing?"
Today's high-profile crises come amid the journalism PR people are dealing with, Gasthalter says. "It's a need to get a story done and get it turned in." But a crisis changes reporting and influences the story. He says you need to make judgement calls dealing with the press based on your experience. "You have to help shape the story. It comes down to a relationship."
Crisis PR Tips
- Use surrogates to speak for a client but make sure they are realistic.
- Be careful going off the record.
- Expect reporters to try to avoid the PR person, but the PR guy who "gets it" can help the reporter.
- PR/press relationships matter big time in a crisis and beyond.
- Remember that the press today has more pressure than ever to get a story finished.
- Legal and courts documents and letters to stakeholders can become public documents in a crisis.
- Understand the legal risks of commenting in a crisis and be sure of the message you want to send.
- Be prepared if your client acts unpredictably and uses social media without warning.
- If another major news event is happening, and you are making the news, make sure yours does not conflict.
- Be ready if the press keeps breaking more bad news in a crisis.
Andrew Blum is a PR consultant and media trainer and principal of AJB Communications. He has directed PR for professional services and financial services firms, NGOs, agencies and other clients. As a PR executive, and formerly as a journalist, he has been involved on both sides of the media aisle in some of the most media intensive crises of the past 25 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @ajbcomms