PR Insider: Winning Strategies in Public Perception

First comes the accusation: an employee is claiming discrimination, a customer has died allegedly due to a product, there has been a large public incident with injury to people and Mother Earth, or an ongoing patent dispute is getting close to trial.

There are three basic strategies one can employ:

  1. No comment (anyone in today’s world of connectivity still saying ‘no comment’ to questions about litigation is providing a petri dish for public disdain);
  2. Deny all allegations; or
  3. Speak with a level of transparency that is genuine, but non-argumentative.

It is the latter that makes most C-suites begin to sweat and likely for good reason. There have been more damaging statements then helpful ones over the years. For example, recall the CEO of a major pharmaceutical company being quoted on the front page of The Wall Street Journal in response to allegations that a widely-used drug was showing life-threatening side effects, igniting hundreds of lawsuits. He said, “It is not always about safety.” What he really should have said is that, “All medicines have some level of danger associated with them, and sometimes the risk of taking a medicine is a better choice than leaving a disease of conditions untreated.” This would also have given him the benefit of the doubt that he did not believe that his company should be producing unsafe products.

The following tips will help keep the damaging statements at bay and protect the company name:

  1. Attitude is everything. The specific language used will be different for every type of litigation, but the attitude is the same. The company is problem-solving, investigating, and preparing its courtroom presentation, all with a smile on its face. Never show anger or contempt that the company is involved in litigation. Be a hero, not a victim.
  2. Defend the brand, but acknowledge that sometimes mistakes are made. Either way the company will get to the heart of the problem if there is one and implement a remedy if one is needed.
  3. Consider all of the population segments that are listening. Too many companies are most concerned about Wall Street. But often, the investor message is too harsh or too defensive for customers, suppliers, a potential jury pool and employees. A consumer brand such as Kraft would need to address both its stockholders and its customers. One group wants to hear that their investments are safe, and the other wants to hear that their children can still safely eat macaroni and cheese.
  4. Plan to be in court. Even if there is a strong belief that the litigation will be solved without a jury or bench trial, consider the feelings every statement is going to provoke when it is blown up on a 10’ x 10’ screen in a courtroom.
  5. Speak only to your own motivations and not that of the other party. A company can be “understanding,” presently uninformed (a condition you promise to change), disappointed, empathetic, concerned, etc. It cannot be accusatory nor belittle the opponent.
  6. Choose a spokesperson carefully and vet the statement with different segments of the company. Verbal and non-verbal skills matter more than the position. If the CEO is not made for television, then do not let him or her near the podium. If the head of PR has never dealt with a public crisis or litigation, it is unsafe to assume he will present the company’s case well.
  7. Utilize the internet. Report when something good happens, and get on the offense if something negative occurs. The statements should be short and direct.
  8. Be sensitive to employee perceptions. Most company litigation means that there will be employees who will need to testify. This causes angst. People are getting notices to be deposed, others are being called into conference rooms for day-long meetings. They are asked to travel, and think and speak in degrees that are foreign to them. If the case has public attention, they are also reading negative remarks about their employer.
  9. Be inclusive. Have department or team meetings to assure the troops that the accusations are being investigated, and you need their help. In the beginning, ask people to come forward if they have information. As the months – and sometimes years – go by, provide regular status reports even if the case is dormant. The less information people have, the more stories they make up.
  10. Words must match actions. Incongruence makes people psychologically uncomfortable, resulting in doubt as to whether what they are hearing and seeing is the truth.
  11. Practice empathy. Walk in the shoes of those being spoken to, and the appropriate words will follow.

Companies that take the time to employ some or all of the strategies outlined above increase their chances in bouncing back from highly publicized litigation and win back the public.

Theresa Zagnoli, founding partner and CEO of Zagnoli McEvoy Foley LLC, is a leader in the field of communication consulting and has been providing practical trial consulting and communication solutions to attorneys and business leaders for over 20 years. Her knowledge of the American juror has made her one of the most sought-after trial consultants in the nation. Follow her: @tzagnoli.