Lawyers Speak Up: Tips for Cases Receiving Media Attention
At some point in every lawyer’s career, there’s a good chance a case they’re handling will reach the ears, eyes, tape recorders, and cameras of the media. Being contacted by the media during a case– whether it’s by a local newspaper, larger press, TV news station, news website, or radio station– and asked to do an interview or issue a statement can be both an opportunity to look forward to and one to dread.
On one hand, garnering media attention while handling a case means that case is particularly news-worthy– a “big one”, if you will. Talking to the media and sharing your client’s story can be an extraordinarily powerful way to compel others to believe in your client’s story and do good. It can help sway a case in your favor as news travels. It can also be a way to let others know about your skills as a lawyer. On the other hand, dealing with media groups can be stressful, exhausting, and even harmful if your client’s story somehow becomes muddled, is portrayed unclearly, or is told in such a way that may help the opposition.
The good news is that the outcome of how you deal with the media and how you portray your case and client are– most of the time, anyway– within your control as long as you are well-prepared. You have the upper hand in situations involving media because you hold the valuable information.
This past month, we’ve asked lawyers to share some of their best tips for dealing with media attention and how to help media interviews go the way you need them to. Below are snippets from some of the best tips we received:
Mark Kitrick, of Kitrick, Lewis & Harris:
“Whether it be TV, radio, news, or social media, this is a critical time to tell your client’s story. It should be powerful, have a moral, and include no more than three salient points. When anyone hears or learns about it, it is THE story that is compelling and you want people to conclude you are right and that your client should win.
You must spend significant time and energy to create a well-designed, well thought out statement that encompasses 2-3 points. In essence, you’re creating a short play or television show. It should be akin to your Opening Statement. Never be spontaneous. Remember, you will be lucky if any aired TV interview is 15-20 seconds even if you talked with the reporters 30 minutes or longer. Because one never knows how much of what you say or write will be aired or published, you always want the final, edited version (which you cannot control) to reflect the essence of your case.
Reporters like to drill down and ask many questions. Stick with your key points and do not deviate, and be polite, respectful, and professional.
Almost always the reporter or interviewer wants to also talk with or meet your client. Prepare your client with the talking/writing points. Make sure you know whether your client is willing to be interviewed; many prefer to let you do the talking. Then, verify with the reporter whether your client will be interviewed in addition to you.
Avoid legalese. Be pithy and use common sense analogies to better connect with a wide audience.
Be prepared for counter points or cross-examination questions or attitudes and have excellent responses on the ready.
When in front of a camera dress for success, maintain excellent eye contact with the interviewer, smile, relax, lean forward showing you care if you’re sitting down, don’t blink too much, and wear the appropriate colors. Build rapport with the reporter and camera operator-if you visualize them as very close friends, you will have an instant connection that might not happen otherwise.
Consider retaining a marketing/media company to help you and your client handle and properly publicize the case.
Media attention is a rare opportunity, a legal gem that you must polish and preserve for you want it to leave lasting, winning impressions.”
Taylor Asen, of Gideon Asen:
“Generally speaking, I tell my clients that they should not under any circumstances speak with the media without me present, or at least before I and the client have had a chance to work out what she will say. I have even emailed a quote from my client to the reporter, to ensure I know what is going to be printed. There are several reasons to be careful about this. First, of course, you don’t want your client to mistakenly say something that could hurt her case. Second, you don’t want to open your client up to a defamation claim.
By the same token, I try to make sure before I speak to the media that my statement is going to benefit my client in some way. Getting in the newspaper can be useful for lawyers, but our job isn’t to publicize ourselves for our own sakes. Our job is to further our clients’ cause. Maybe your client is better served by you staying out of the story. Or maybe your client doesn’t want you to comment.
In short, it’s critical that you and your client communicate well and are in agreement with respect to a strategy.”
Mark Harvey, of Hugh James:
“Here in the courts of England and Wales we are fairly free to speak to the media about a civil law case until a judge has actually been appointed to hear the trial. At that point, talking directly to the press should usually stop or you can risk having to explain to the judge why you said what you did, and the possibility of an expensive adjournment.
There will be cases where you think it is in your client’s interest to court media attention; those where it is inevitable whether your client likes it or not and finally those where the attention is unexpected. Whatever the context, the first and overriding tip would be to ensure that at all times you are only working in your client’s interests. You may well welcome the attention because press coverage may be a great advertisement for your business, but the client may not.
For those cases that fall into the first category, perhaps because the attention could bring pressure to bear upon the defendant to resolve the case through adverse publicity for example, it is important that you sit down and agree with your client what it is that you are hoping to achieve and then agreeing the strategy. In many, if not the vast majority of cases, professional advice should be obtained. The lawyer would be irritated if the PR professional decided to run their own litigation and so the position can be reversed. Naturally some firms, like my own, have our own in-house PR and media experts to assist. We also contract with suitable external specialists who can help us on a particular project.
Many lawyers have realised too late that they do not control the media and if you ever think that you do then you will get bitten. That is of course a reason why sometimes you may have to advise the client to be proactive in terms of media attention even if their instinct is to try to avoid it. The client who wants to announce their successful claim has to understand that the press are going to want to know exactly how much money they received. They won’t get away with just trying to talk about the esoteric elements of the case and what they thought they achieved. The headline is likely to be the pounds and pence.
If you know that a particular hearing is going to attract attention, then it is usually in the client’s best interests to try to approach it with a level of cooperation with one or more of the journalists rather than trying to ignore it. Offering “no comment” rarely helps the client but nevertheless is a tool that you have to be prepared to use in the right circumstances. First of all there is a risk that their opponent may use the opportunity for their benefit and dictate the narrative and secondly the client may end up very upset at what the press have chosen to feature. Better in those circumstances to produce a press release which sets out the key points that your client wants to get across in their case, supported by appropriate quotes. Communicating with the media in a controlled way can be a positive experience and may reduce the number of enquiries people have to field. Although the client does need to understand that providing information may lead to more coverage and could affect any investigations that might be ongoing. Hopefully however, the provision of a helpful release complete with suitable quotations from the client will deter subsequent cold approaches to the client from journalists. The lawyer can certainly include their own quotations as appropriate in the release, with the client agreement but bear in mind that the journalist would far rather hear from the client first.
If your client is adamant that they do not want to speak to the press then politely you should make that point in the release and on any direct contact. Again this is more likely to result in what your client wants than if they have simply put their head in the sand when they are likely to receive many unsolicited approaches.
In terms of practical hints, respond to any press enquiry as soon as possible. Even if it isn’t anything more than to explain to the journalist that you will be taking your client’s instructions and trying to agree time to come back to them. If your client is absolutely clear that they do not want to respond them with the client’s permission try and explain why on this occasion this is the point. There are situations in which the journalist will recognise the position and respect it. It might be on the basis that the story is premature and they should revisit another time when the client may be more amenable to discussion.
Whether drafting a release or speaking directly to the journalist, ensure that you are accurate in what you say and try and speak in as plain and simple English as you can. Imagine having to defend those comments in front of the judge later. Ensure that you say nothing that would cause you embarrassment or difficulty in that situation.
The outcome of the trial might be a moment to celebrate or a time of considerable frustration and sadness if you lose. In the latter circumstances it is important to guide your client on how their reaction should be communicated. It is rarely a good idea to stand on the court steps and accuse the judge or jury of incompetence! Better generally to give a holding statement of disappointment and that there will be an opportunity to reflect on the judgment and whether you wish to appeal.
If successful, consider carefully whether the popping of champagne corks on the court steps is an appropriate reaction. This is particularly the case in claims involving fatalities or catastrophic injuries where the lawyer may well have won but the client has received no more than they were probably entitled to. This is not after all a lottery win however large the damages may be but is, in order to manage what is going to be a very challenging life.”
Justin Curcio, of Curcio Law:
“First and foremost, do not divulge anything that could jeopardize your case or create a mistrial. If the case is being argued, chances are there are many facts/issues that the presiding judge ruled on preliminary as inadmissible. Discussing these facts to the media, even though the jury is instructed to not search out information during the course of trial, could lead to a mistrial if a juror still learns about inadmissible evidence.
Keep it brief. Just like trial, shorter is better.
Before speaking to any media, have your remarks prepared ahead of time and cleared by your client. You do not want to be caught off guard and have something slip out that you originally did not want to be disclosed.
Assume the opposition is watching. Whatever you say to the media, assume the opposition is listening and will use anything to their advantage.
When in doubt, do not say anything. If you have a big case that warrants media attention, chances are you are proud of it. Do not let vanity get to you and be ready to not comment on any questions you are not prepared to answer… despite how badly you might want to answer them.”
Tyler Schneider, of TorHoerman Law, LLC:
“One pitfall many lawyers fall victim to is seeing a media opportunity as an opportunity to highlight themselves or their firm and not their client. Media exposure has its place in our business, but the focus should never be the lawyer (although criminal cases are a different beast). Your client has a story, a moment of vulnerability, which if highlighted right can bring positive attention and maybe even influence a later juror. But when a lawyer makes the moment about them, the client just becomes another person suing – a statistic – and stereotypes are reinforced. Remember, seize the moment doesn’t mean you have to seize it for yourself.”
Keith Dozier, of Wm. Keith Dozier:
“There are generally three periods of time when speaking with the press may be necessary or be something you chose to do: the pre-filing period, when the matter becomes an active case, and after relevant events such as oral argument on dispositive motions or when a verdict is entered. Lawyers should spend some time preparing for any of these situations.
If you seek out media coverage of your client’s case pre-filing, it is advisable to coordinate with your local Trial Lawyer Association and hire a media consultant they recommend. Your TLA will have experience in assisting others in the past and will likely be able to offer sage advice on how to proceed. They will also likely know what reporters and writers in your local community have a sound reputation for being fair and proving favorable coverage of your case.
Be mindful of seeking out press coverage or holding a press conference close in time to trial. In smaller venues this can lead to a defense request for trial postponement if a significant portion of the jury pool has been exposed to coverage about your case instigated by you or an ally of your client. It can also lead to post-trial motions to set aside a verdict if the defense can point to pre-trial or press coverage during trial that arguably influenced the jury.
If approached to provide comment on an active case, it is still advisable to speak with your TLA before responding – if time allows. They can assist with ideas about best practices and what pitfalls to avoid. However, you should be prepared with a well thought out “sound bite” or two in case you are approached out of the blue. Do not be tempted to ignore the press as they will likely write something anyway. It is better to be articulate and reasoned, not silent.
Press attention after a verdict – favorable or otherwise – should similarly be met with caution and after some preparation. Expressing gratitude to the jury, the court’s evenhandedness, and your clients trust in you can never reflect poorly on you or our profession. Being caught unprepared and/or emotional is never a good thing. Make up your mind well before the jury speaks that you will remind yourself (and your client) to never sound bitter or take shots at the opposition or the court.
At all times, be careful when/if asked to speak “on background” or “off the record”. Be sure there is a level of trust with the press person before doing so. Also, be aware that in some states parties are not required to give notice or gain consent before recording conversations. In short, it is advisable to never say anything that you do not want disclosed publicly.
Remember that any contact with the media is an opportunity to espouse the merits of the civil justice system as well as your client’s claim. However, it can also be an opportunity to sound foolish or let slip something you later regret if you are not prepared.”
Michael Krzak, of Krzak Rundio Law Group, LLC:
“Go into a press conference or an interview with the mantra of making short but strong statements that leave the questioner and listener with no doubt regarding your position. Make sure you think through every angle that a reporter may try to trip you up or take the counter position to the point you are trying to get across. The more you think through potential questions, the better your responses will be. Once the cameras or audio recorders are rolling, don’t be afraid to state your position and state it or reiterate it every chance you get. There needs to be consistency in the message you are getting across. If you are strong and prepared, you will come across as confident and just.
If your client is at a press conference, and it is your intention to have them speak, it is always best to have the client read a prepared statement. Remember – anything they say, can and will be used against them in a court of law! There is no “do-over” or asking the reporter to disregard something your client says. A reporter’s mission is to produce a good story. If you’re not giving them the story, you run the risk of the story being misreported. If a client is going to make a statement, be sure to let the media know (before the cameras are rolling) that the client will make a prepared statement and that all questions should be addressed to the attorneys in the room and not the client. Setting the rules and the tone of what will occur in the room will lead to a better press conference, interview, or exclusive. If a reporter gets pushy and would like the client to answer questions, do not be afraid to remind them (even with the cameras rolling) that this is a very emotional situation for the client and that the only statement that they will be giving will be the initial statement as you said at the start of the press conference, interview, or exclusive. You need to control the dialogue as much as possible and be sure that an emotionally impacted client does not say something that they will later regret and that will turn the tide in the wrong direction.
Speaking of preparation, visual aids regarding the incident, the facts, and circumstances regarding the incident or any other pertinent matters are always helpful and make a media event more interesting. Don’t be afraid to have impactful photographs of the scene of the accident, the injuries, or other documents that support your position blown up and ready to be utilized and referred to during your prepared comments. It always takes time and effort to get those things done, but it will lead to a more impactful story, which will make you and your client look good and prepared.
Be wary of someone from the press asking you for an “off the record” statement. Unless you have a longstanding relationship with a reporter, you should be wary of the promise to keep something “off the record.” Always assume the cameras or audio recording devices are running. That way, there can be no mistake or misconstruction as to what is “on” and “off” the record.
Finally, be careful of what you are saying about other people or businesses. Remember, you are the one speaking, and while there is “freedom of speech” there always lies a potential of defamation, libel, or slander when you are speaking publicly about others. Being calculated and prepared in what you will say will eliminate any potential of others accusing you of attempting to ruin their good name.”
We’d like to thank the attorneys who responded to our roundup question and shared their valuable tips.
If you’re an attorney and would like to share your thoughts and advice with other lawyers and potentially become a part of Lawyer Minds, reach out to us.
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