PR and Legal: On the Same Team
Many companies dramatically accelerate their growth and success using public relations. PR has emerged as an effective tool to reach the ultimate consumer and franchise prospects in a myriad of industries. However, when companies or their officers "put themselves out there" in the media, they run the risk of doing collateral brand damage because they typically lack control over the message. Moreover, media sources have their own agenda in raising or analyzing issues in the way most appealing to their readers, as opposed to a carefully tailored advertising message.
Most companies do not have a system in place to recognize when a legal problem is going to become a public relations problem. Usually, that revelation comes with the first media contact, and from there everything is reactionary. Most franchise executives rely on gut instinct, intuition, and chance. Moreover, even in large franchisors, legal and PR departments typically interact with an understood "tension," as companies engage in the balancing act between legal and public relations opportunities and risk.
At the same time, media outlets have changed dramatically, and there is now a 24-hour news cycle and an opportunity to "publish" news on the Internet instantaneously. In times of crisis, reporters will often seek comment before you are even aware of the situation or engage in any type of investigation. Executives should resist the temptation to respond off the cuff, and collaborate with their legal professionals to ensure they aren't making any admissions or other statements that could have an impact on future litigation. Too often, these communications are ad hoc, as companies don't have a point person to receive and respond to media requests, nor an established protocol to direct the communication to the appropriate professional.
Obviously, litigation is inevitable in the franchise community, and a franchisor may quickly find itself facing the media among a larger audience. In litigation it is important to distinguish "vanilla" lawsuits, as opposed to cases involving (1) unique or novel actions; (2) sensational facts; (3) a compelling "human" interest; (4) an unusually high level of damages; (5) adverse parties who are well known or high profile; or (6) an adverse party suffering from medical or financial hardship related or unrelated to the underlying dispute.
Franchisors should have an experienced PR professional analyze whether the issue will likely garner local, regional, or trade media attention because of the nature of the facts or the parties. With respect to trade media, one should understand whether the nature of the claims or the parties evokes regular coverage. It's also important to understand whether the case seeks to make new law, is in an area where the law is presently unsettled, or whether a law is being extended to a new fact or circumstance where dispositive contrary authority doesn't exist, since these factors may make the case more "newsworthy."
Next it's important to understand whether the case indicates a new trend in the law or by analogy applies to a broader range of business disputes. Media sources love to report on trends, which they like to identify early. For example, if a decision would affect the franchisor's entire industry, or a widely implicated industry practice, then the case may garner more attention. In franchising, any political or regulatory aspect may attract media attention, like a state or federal investigation or regulatory proceeding. Finally, look at the caliber and quality of the opposing counsel, whether they offer credible opinions to the media, and the frequency with which they issue press releases and otherwise attract media attention to their matters.
If any of these matters is present, then you have a leading indicator of a legal issue that could evolve into a public relations nightmare. In many cases, the corporation finds itself defending two fronts: the investigative or regulatory action on the one hand, and the increased media attention brought to the action on the other.
It is critically important in these circumstances to ensure that your legal and PR professionals work together to minimize collateral damage to the brand. In these instances, top management should seek informed input from both the legal and public relations departments with the goal of creating an informed public opinion, rather than have the public rely on media speculation.
Lane Fisher is a partner and founder of FisherZucker LLC. He has represented franchisors for more than 20 years, written extensively on many aspects of franchising, and is a frequent speaker on franchise issues. Contact him at 215-825-3100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.