Legal Communications: The Verdict On In-House V. Agency PR

Peruse the headlines of any leading newspaper, and you are guaranteed to find ample evidence that we live in an increasingly litigious world. For example: Hewlett-Packard executives are in the midst of a congressional hearing over a corporate spying probe, which even prompted the company's general counsel, Ann Baskins, to resign. Enron's C-suite members were in the legal hot seat for years after the corporation's scandalous demise, and prison terms were passed out like candy. The list of corporate malfeasance ending in the courtroom goes on and on, and it inherently poses a series of questions both for communications practitioners and corporate executives. When making a case for legal PR, where should the communications function be located to be most effective? Should it be imbedded in the law firm itself as a public relations department? Or, does it make more sense to seek outside counsel in the form of an agency? When you are contemplating the strengths and weaknesses of legal PR teams, it is essential to take a number of functions - and the PR department's ability to manage them - into consideration. Media Relations Handling the media in the midst of a legal maelstrom is not an exercise for the faint of heart; likewise, neither is coordinating with tight-lipped lawyers. The acrobatics required to delicately and effectively minimize media attention are laudable (and, often, rare) in the current legal climate. Therefore, law firms face a challenge when deciding between internal or external communications counsel. There are arguments in favor of each, but often it comes down to one simple detail: accessibility. "The most important thing is access," says Joshua Peck, senior media relations manager and overseer of strategic public relations for Duane Morris LLP. "Lawyers speak much more freely with someone who is on the same payroll." With that consideration front-of-mind, Duane Morris keeps its PR team on the inside, and Peck says the firm benefits accordingly. Not only does he have immediate access to lawyers - who are often too elusive (or expensive) to get on the phone - but he can sit in on meetings as a way to keep his ear to the ground for future hot-button issues. Plus, with a complex web of legal considerations of their own, lawyers are not permitted to take case details outside the firm itself, leaving agency representatives in the dark. While these details are not available to disseminate to the media, in-house practitioners can understand the case with more context. There are media benefits of using out-of-house communications, though. Peck himself worked on the "other side" earlier in his career, and he cited an instance where a journalist called him asking for multiple legal perspectives on one issue. Since he claimed upwards of 10 firms among his clients, he was able to offer knowledgeable commentators from every angle. (This also can be seen as a strike against agency representation, since, in the words of Peck, "The outside professional is serving more than one master.") PR-Cum-Marketing As the iron curtain separating marketing from PR begins to rise, law firms see added benefit to coordinating the efforts of both in-house departments. In the case of Latham & Watkins LLP, the two worked together to create a coup in terms of recruiting top candidates out of law school. The communications team developed an innovative recruiting brochure to pass around at job fairs, but they wanted to avoid the jaded print pamphlets. In a nod to today's tech- savvy youth, the team put marketing materials on a USB flash drive and used the device as a branding tool as well. It was a success on many fronts: Not only did it attract the attention of top candidates, but it was a completely internally driven effort that could be updated quickly and inexpensively. Crisis Communications Given the nature of the beast, legal communications are often accomplished in a crisis climate. With that as a backdrop, communicators know that a lot hangs in the balance. According to Jay Jaffe, president and CEO of Jaffe Associates (which handles PR, marketing and business-development on a consulting basis for law firms), "There is something in the legal culture that seems to get in the way of successful crisis media management." In a piece written for "Law Journal Newsletter's Marketing The Law Firm" Jaffe cites the three solutions to the problems associated with crises and sensitive information as: 1. An early warning system that allows management to know that potential crisis issues are on the horizon; 2. The actual preparation and planning that should go into the development of a crisis plan; and 3. Successful implementation of a plan. These solutions are applicable to crises of any persuasion, but legal communicators will find them especially necessary in defending against the challenges that go along with litigious situations; for example, the confidential and often incriminating nature of information, the media's inherent fondness for salacious courtroom dramas and the difficulty in coordinating communications efforts with lawyers (some of whom have their own agenda. with little regard for how the media will perceive it). On the other side of the in-house-versus-agency fence, Peck still suggests similar plans of attack for PR and communications professionals. "Seek inclusion in the planning process aggressively. Face-to-face meetings are essential," he says. "The PR professional should develop the clout to say 'no.' He or she has to be the ultimate decider of what is and isn't a story." CONTACT: Joshua Peck, jpeck@duane; Jay Jaffe,

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