Your Brand is Getting Sued. Now What?

Lawsuits are a part of doing business, which is what makes litigation PR such a crucial part of the overall communications industry and part of every brand's communications strategy.

But now it’s happening to your brand. You know a suit is being released publicly later today. It’s potentially damaging.

What should you do?

The first step should be to reference your brand’s crisis communications plan. Don’t have one in place? The day a lawsuit hits is not the time to draft a strategy.

"While the lawsuit may not initially be public, internal audiences will need to know and an experienced crisis management consultant should be part of the team and ready to execute should the news become public," says Vivian Hood, CEO of Jaffe PR. "If a company properly handles the situation and does it quickly, the impact on an established brand equity will be minimized."

Part of a crisis plan should be the maintenance of a running list of incidents that will likely turn into high-profile lawsuits, notes Matthew Beaton, partner at Beaton PR. "Generally a lawsuit doesn’t come out of the blue. Often there’s been an acrimonious termination or a major public incident. Attorneys are exchanging letters and sitting in meetings long before anything is filed. These incidents must be tracked and the company should have bullet points on how it will respond in the press if a lawsuit is filed," he says.

But even in the absence of this level of preparation, here are five key tips that can help you protect your brand in the court of public opinion.

Move—and respond—fast. Act quickly and make a plan for communications and PR in the face of an incident and related suit, says Ronn Torossian, CEO of 5WPR. "The court of public opinion is often litigated and settled long before a trial even starts, which can have significant positive or negative impact on your business depending on if you leverage PR to your benefit," he says.

Hood agrees that transparency and swiftness are indeed necessary to combat the negative fallout from a lawsuit. "In this day of instant tweets and online reputation management, it's even more important to be prepared to communicate what is happening, with consistency," she argues.

Own the narrative. "Companies must not cede the narrative in the digital age," Beaton said. "Too many stories get written too quickly and get picked up by other outlets. Companies should do everything in their power to quickly defend themselves. They cannot allow stories to simply rehash all the negative points in the lawsuit. It puts you in a deep hole that’s difficult to dig out of."

Torossian concurs, adding that the narrative needs to begin internally. "Businesses need to understand what information will be disclosed in the suit, and communicate to key stakeholders their response and reaction to it before the story is being told by the media or opposing parties. Transparency leads to trust."

Be strategic. Put an internal structure in place, or hire an agency, to ensure media inquiries are handled promptly and strategically. "No comment"—or a media inquiry fielded by someone not trained to speak to media—"is not a smart business strategy," Torossian says.

"Create talking points for all stakeholders. This is critical in order to make sure everyone is on the same page and knows how to communicate effectively," says Rachael Wolensky, corporate communications and PR manager at ALM Media. "Make sure to have messaging for internal, external, website, social, email—all marketing facets that can be impacted. Don’t forget to share with key stakeholders such as board members and managers what the status is. By communicating these points it allows for transparency across the board."

Coordinate efforts internally. Leveraging PR in these circumstances requires a healthy coordination of stakeholders, internal departments and information.

"Coordinate your IT with your social media with your PR with your legal with your management, so everyone is on the same page and knows their roles. Nothing worse than having an ill-timed pre-scheduled tweet about great tasting recipes immediately following a catastrophic e-coli outbreak and public outcry about everyone's favorite bagged salad brand," says Hood.

And on defense, "you align with legal strategy, win or lose," notes Tadd Schwartz, founder of Schwartz Media Strategies in Miami. "You don’t want to rehash claims of lawsuit, but there are times where you want to send a message. If you win a contentious lawsuit, you go to press and send a message that you will fight back and win so as to discourage future litigation."

Monitor progress. Keep track of the impact of your messaging and that of the other parties in the case, and adjust tactics where necessary. This is where social and reputational listening are essential.

"Monitor online reputation dips or spikes and determine whether to respond accordingly, and keep comments professional and with an appropriate tone. Humor or sarcasm may not be the best approach," warns Hood. "Measure the public's reaction to the brand after a period of time. Has it improved since the lawsuit? How has the brand's reputation been impacted, did sales drop but return?"

Hood also recommends a post-mortem: "What could have been done differently, to prepare for the next inevitable crisis or lawsuit that may happen?"

Melissa Hoffmann is Content Director of PR News.  Follow her: @editormelissa