Law: A spin on the courts - or the courts in a spin?
Litigation PR is a growth industry, and skilful management of the media can pave the way for lucrative out-of-court settlements.
Tuesday 03 August 1999
The general public will not have heard of litigation PR, nor will many high-flying lawyers and executives in the City of London where it is largely practised - because it is of necessity a discreet business.
They will, however, have seen the headlines for which it has been responsible: the legal battle of Tommy Hilfiger and Nike to get Sainsbury's and Tesco to stop selling certain brand-name goods, and the German company suing the British government for dropping it from the contract to build the Millennium Dome.
Behind a majority of those headlines is Cambridge graduate and former bond dealer Stephen Lock. He has acted for the plaintiffs in those cases, behind the scenes and outside the courtroom. Above his desk at City PR firm, Ludgate Communications, is a framed example of his proudest coup - an Evening Standard front page with the headline "Prince in pounds 21m Park Lane sex den". Mr Lock acted for the Manoukian family who in 1998 sued Prince Jefri of Brunei for pounds 18m. The Prince settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, largely, Mr Lock claims, as a result of newspaper coverage of his private life.
"It has never been published what my client received," grins Mr Lock, "suffice to say that it put a broad smile on the client's face, and ours."
This is what is involved in litigation PR - embarrassing the other side into settling. Any press coverage that influences the outcome of a trial could be deemed contempt of court - a criminal offence. For solicitors to talk to the press about their cases on the courtroom steps is still viewed as a little risque in some quarters; and barristers are still forbidden to discuss their cases.
But a handful of the UK's barristers and solicitors are learning that it can often help to tip off journalists about a forthcoming case, particularly in industrial tribunals, where the employer may prefer to settle rather than see embarrassing details spread over newspapers.
In the more litigious US, a whole industry has grown up around litigation PR - recent estimates are that about 20 PR agencies in the US are wholly or mainly devoted to this practice. Ludgate is thought to be the only PR company in the UK to set up a team specifically targeted at winning litigation PR work.
The move came through Mr Lock's association with a senior partner at a top-30 City law firm. The senior partner was no stranger to public relations and instructed Mr Lock to help fight his insurance company clients' battles. - outside the courtroom. In insurance cases, it is easy to paint the individual plaintiff whose life has been ruined by a crippling accident, as a poor underdog fighting against a corporate giant.
It was Mr Lock's task to put the other side - discreetly - to a few newspapers. His work got noticed by rivals at other law firms, and soon more lawyer clients came through the door. The litigation PR unit offers an enticing recipe of "pre-writ issuance announcements" - tipping off the press that a juicy writ is about to be issued; "press gallery relations" - chatting up journalists on the press bench during a case; "defence management" - putting the defendant's point across; and "parallel media campaigning" - fighting a case both through the law courts and in the court of public opinion.
The other noted practitioner of this art, and thought to be Mr Lock's role model, is former Observer industrial correspondent, George Pitcher. Mr Pitcher left The Observer in 1992 to found PR firm Luther Pendragon with Charles Smith, former editor of ITN's News at Ten.
In a search for potential clients, Mr Pitcher quickly discovered an untapped mine of fee income from law firms who were representing clients in litigation battles that never reached the public eye. With offices near the Temple, the two former journalists made use of social contacts with solicitors and barristers.
Some may consider PR a less than honourable trade, and to some, particularly lawyers and judges who believe the law should take its course without "interference" from the media, there is something especially disquieting about litigation PR.
But Mr Pitcher points out that airing grievances in the press to induce a settlement saves everyone time and money. "I have lawyers who come to me who say, `I've got a client... if I advise them to go to court in six months' time, they may or may not get satisfaction, but if this story is told in next Sunday's newspaper, their problem will go away.' I have no problem with that."
It seems that in the world of litigation PR, justice has to be seen to be done - sometimes even before it reaches the courts.
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