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Media plan needed to manage crisis

|Written By Kirsten McMahon - Law Times

Whenthe media comes knocking in the midst of corporate litigation or crisis, it'simportant to have a solid media plan in place.

An effective media strategy involves more than just looking at the prospect of litigation, says Peter Pliszka.
An effective media strategy involves more than just looking at the prospect of litigation, says Peter Pliszka.
"A lot of lawyers have a phobia of the media so they have a knee-jerk reaction to avoid it at all costs and if they get confronted and have no immediate escape route they simply say 'no comment,' which, as everyone in the media knows, can be the kiss of death from a variety of perspectives," says Peter Pliszka of Fasken Martin DuMoulin LLP, who practises civil, commercial, and insurance litigation.

Pliszka, who was part of a panel at a Canadian Corporate Counsel Association seminar at the annual meeting Vancouver last month, says the first step when coming up with a media plan is to engage the relevant stakeholders in the company or organization.

"You would want your outside legal counsel and your in-house legal counsel speaking with the relevant business people within the organization as well as, if the organization has it, the corporate communications or public relations department.

"You want all the relevant stakeholders and people with the right type of expertise involved in the consultation process," he said.

Once the group has been formed, the next step is coming up with the message the company wants to convey to the public.

"If you have a situation where the company is facing some kind of crisis, whether it already has resulted in the initiation of a lawsuit against the company or if it otherwise is simply a high-profile crisis that you know is going to proceed under the glare of the media spotlight, the company has to determine what is our message about this crisis going to be?"

The message should not be complex, said Pliszka, and you don't want multiple messages — ideally one or two, three at the most — otherwise you run the risk of confusing the public through the media.

He said that when determining the message, counsel should look beyond the four corners of the scope of relevance of the litigation.

"There are other stakeholder perspectives of the company that are just as relevant and in some cases, for some crises, far more relevant than the litigation perspective in the lawsuit," he said.

The perspectives of the sales, marketing, and business people in the organization need to be considered, even when you're developing your media message in the context of a high-profile lawsuit.

"You wouldn't want your message, that might very well be appropriate and effective for the litigation itself, to have an adverse effect on the business sales of the company. For example, by criticizing your consumers and giving the impression or message 'Well, all our consumers must be stupid because we made it abundantly clear in our product literature or our warning label that this product should not be used in this way or that way and they went ahead and did so all of our customers are the ones to blame for this.'"

While that may be a good legal position within the context of a lawsuit, it's not necessarily going to fly with the customer base if that's the message that's being sent to them.

"There needs to be a balancing of the various stakeholder perspectives within the company with the overall view of developing the message that is going to strike a balance in serving all the perspectives," said Pliszka.

Once the message is determined, the next step is to determine who is going to be the spokesperson. It could be the litigation lawyer, in-house counsel, or a senior executive with the company, but it needs to be clear precisely who is authorized to speak to the press.

"What you don't want is to have anyone in the company feeling free that he or she can speak at will to the media. It's necessary to have the process controlled and you want to designate one or perhaps a limited number of spokespeople for the company."

Even with a solid message and a spokesperson in place, a reporter may ask questions that the spokesman is unable to answer, but beware of saying "no comment," as people tend to draw adverse inferences from it.

"The phrase 'no comment' should be struck from the vocabulary of any media spokesperson simply because it doesn't convey any clear basis for why the person is not commenting. It's far better to speak in plain English, so if the reporter asks the question that the company's spokes-person is not in a position to answer it's far more appropriate to simply say that," he said.

"That is the spokesperson can say 'I'm sorry, I'm not able to answer that question at this time,' or 'We are still investigating the matter and we don't have the facts that will enable me to respond to that question. We will let you know the answer once we have that information.'"

Pliszka said people often criticize the media for taking statements out of context or getting the facts wrong.

"Often those criticisms may well be accurate but then it raises the question if it appears from mistakes the media may from time to time make, they might not be understanding the issue.

"Rather than criticize, take steps to try and help them understand what the issue is from your perspective and understand exactly what your message is relating to that crisis or issue."

He said it's important to take the time, especially in a litigation context, to explain to journalists what the issues are, why certain types of steps are occurring, or why things have to happen in a certain way. Providing background information and assistance with technical and legal terms can help increase understanding of the issues.

"At the very least you are increasing the odds that the reporter is going to understand your company's message and report it accurately and in a more balanced way."

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