16 July 2001
It is not often that the law features on Newsnight. Legal cases do make it on to the running order, and media-friendly legal experts (or rentaquotes) are wheeled in to pronounce on an Appeal Court decision, but it is rare that the profession gets on to the mainstream news and has to face Jeremy Paxman.
But earlier this month it felt the full wrath and sarcasm of the BBC's favourite journalistic Rottweiler. The occasion, of course, was the latest scene in that long-running legal pantomime, the Law Society and Kamlesh Bahl.
In case you missed it, Bahl won her race and sex discrimination case, delivering what she called a "slap in the face" to the profession's governing body. Paxman wheeled Bahl and the chief executive of the society Janet Paraskeva into the studio. Although they both got Paxmaned, the messages they sold were wholly different.
Both messages got the full treatment. Paxman attacked Paraskeva on the speed of change, the number of black and women members on the controlling council and demanded to know if Bahl would get an apology. Meanwhile, Bahl was continually asked whether a member of the profession should be proud to be described as an "unreliable witness".
On the surface, both remained calm, in control and focused on their message. For Paraskeva it was: "The society is changing. It has a long way to go but I am in charge now and the future will be different." For Bahl it was: "This is an unqualified victory, a justification and a death blow for the society."
What did come over was that one interviewee was in control and the other was on the defensive. And it came down to confidence and a realisation that admitting problems was not a weakness. Whereas Bahl refused to say that any part of the problem lay with her, Paraskeva looked Paxman in the eye and effectively said: "Yes, we screwed up. Yes, we behaved like the worst sort of out-of-date, out-of-touch English institution. But that was then. I know where we need to get to and I intend to get there."
Leaving aside the fact that arguably the very concept of the Law Society has passed its sell-by date, particularly for City firms, Paraskeva's positioning of her product in one of the most hostile environments available showed a maturity far beyond what we have come to expect from the Law Society.
But what have all of these comical goings-on got to do with marketing a big City law firm? Well one day, dear reader, your firm will have its own Bahlesque show. One day a big City firm will have its own messy, farcical, or possibly even criminal day in the media spotlight. Someone will have to sit opposite Paxman and respond when he says: "Well, this is a bit of cock-up isn't it? You look after the interests of multinational companies and broker massive deals but you couldn't even keep your own staff from..."
That day will come. And it's a day to prepare for, not just in your disaster planning but in your day-to-day relationships with the media. There are two levels of preparation. One is, know your Paxman. Do you know how journalists work and the pressures they are under? Do you know what stories they need and want? Do you know how they respond when you lie? Do you know what revenge they can take? Would you know how to work with them in a crisis (note work with not manage) so that they get a story and you get a fair hearing?
Second, learn how to be honest. Nothing pulls the rug from under an interrogator faster than saying: "Yes, it was a cock up. But we've now done..." Ensure your spokesman is confident with their product and their capacity to deliver on what they promise.
And that's the real issue. Behind the spin you must have real things to bring to a crisis. Nothing shows up the gap between rhetoric and reality faster than a PR disaster. The Law Society still looks like a slightly pathetic institution, but at least there's one person inside who seems to realise it.