There are three reasons people sue, typically. One is that they truly were damaged in some way, either financially, physically or some other way, and they decide to seek compensation for damages. Second, whether you did anything wrong or not, someone has decided they have enough of a case to squeeze money out of you in court, but more than likely through an out-of-court settlement. And third, someone may sue you for the attention.
That attention may serve a purpose, such as helping draw attention to a cause, an event, or a campaign of some kind. In this third scenario, even if the case is thrown out, by virtue of generating publicity for simply filing a claim, they’ve already achieved their objective.
If you or your organization is targeted with a lawsuit, be prepared for the plaintiff’s lawyers for the plaintiff to use some over-the-top PR strategies to put you on the defensive even before your lawyers have the chance to read the complaint.
“We have yet to see the complaint.”
Very often, the plaintiff’s lawyer will share the complaint with the media before or simultaneously with actual court filings. In this situation, there is a good chance the media will have more time to review the filing than you will. In fact, there is a chance that your first indication that a suit was filed is when that first reporter calls you asking for a comment. Where plaintiff’s lawyers gain the most momentum is during this period where they drive media coverage, while you and your legal counsel are still working to obtain an actual copy of the complaint to see what’s in it.
The Complaint Focuses on the Most Sensational and Bizarre Allegations
I once saw a situation where a disgruntled former employee sued his former employer over what he argued were unfair grounds for his firing. The fact that he had a substance abuse problem that affected his job performance was not mentioned in the complaint.
What was mentioned was the company’s “strict in-office bathroom policies.” The complaint characterized the work environment as “hostile” because the plaintiff was regularly questioned for his long absences from his work station. The other major fact excluded from the complaint was that management suspected he was engaging in most of his workday substance abuse activity in the restroom.
Of course, the media could only base its coverage on what it knew, so this case became known as the “bathroom policy lawsuit.” What made it even more difficult for the employer to engage in the media was that it was forced to adhere to its own policy of respecting employees’ and former employees’ privacy on personnel issues, and because the matter was now subject to litigation.
The Media will Believe the Initial Narrative First, You will be on Defensive
Anyone who works in the media, or even consumes it on a regular basis, understands that while in a court of law you may be “innocent until proven guilty,” but in the “court of public opinion” you are more than likely to be considered guilty until proven innocent.
This means you may have to prove a negative, which is often impossible. You may have to defend yourself in the media. So, while in the court, the plaintiff may have to actually prove you did something wrong, in the media, the plaintiff is not so hindered. Whatever they say you did, it is perceived you did it until you can prove otherwise.
The Legal Process Provides a Publicity Timeline
Once the initial filing is made, the legal system has its own built-in timetable, which may include everything from discovery and depositions, to publicly accessible court dates. These public hearings and trials are oftentimes treated as media events by plaintiff’s attorneys, meaning you have to approach the case as though it’s a communications campaign, in addition to a legal case, with a beginning, middle and end.
The most important steps you can take if you are ever faced with a lawsuit is to work closely with your own legal counsel to make sure all of your communications are in support of and in synch with the legal strategy. You must also be fully aware of the systems your organization has had in place and has in place to prevent the very thing your organization is being accused of in the legal complaint. The key is to make sure that even in the event the suit against your organization has some merit, it is the exception and not representative of something deeper, more systemic.
If you have any questions about litigation PR, get in touch. I’d be glad to talk.
Also published on Medium.