PR: the key for firms in a right royal mess

As the media open season on royal lawyers continues, Linda Tsang explains how to face the music and get the papers playing your tune.

In the last year, lawyers have opened their daily papers on the way to work with an air of trepidation.

From the red-top tabloids to The Times, lawyers have been categorised either as fat cats or as systematically ripping off the legal aid system or the Royal Family.

They have yet to be blamed for the assassination of John F Kennedy.

Yet as the anniversary of the death of that other great cultural icon and circulation booster – Diana, Princess of Wales – passes, lawyers have again found themselves in the firing line.

Last week in the "Political Scoop of the Year" Boodle Hatfield was hauled over the red tops for a £400,000 bill run up for former Prime Minister John Major in his role as Princes William and Harry's guardian.

An earlier example came when Lawrence Graham commercial litigation head Andrew Dobson was grilled by The Sunday Mirror. The paper was outraged over July revelations that the firm's fees, according to a "royal insider", were in the region of £3m for trade mark work on Diana's image. Mishcon de Reya, the firm of Diana's divorce lawyer Anthony Julius, also hit the headlines when it charged £500,000 for 11 weeks' work handling the Diana Memorial Fund.

The firms' experiences showed the best way to deal with what is likely to cause public uproar is to face the music – and the press – immediately and, in the case of a furore over billing, detail exactly what work the billing covers.

In the case of Lawrence Graham, Dobson told The Sunday Mirror that the work covered litigation and proceedings in trade mark registries around the world. And with Mishcon de Reya, the press was told that Julius had provided his work free, with his firm providing a 20 per cent discount on its fees.

Similarly, Boodle has been quick to point out that its bill to John Major was cut by almost a quarter as a gesture of "goodwill".

But the firm's experience shows that more than ever before, lawyers need to be able to respond quickly, accurately and firmly to damaging press stories. Most firms and even chambers now have in-house and external PR managers.

Even the Bar Council is no slouch when it comes to PR. It has appointed Shandwick PR to take over the management of its image from Westminster Strategy. Other agencies which were in the running for the lucrative contract were Hill & Knowlton and Fishburn Hedges.

Without doubt, lawyers are becoming more adept at getting good news into the media – lawyers involved in high-profile litigation can always be found on the courtroom steps reading a statement to the press in time for the early evening news.

But they will still usually turn to the external agencies for advice and assistance if they have to deal with crisis control and damage limitation.

Sue Stapley, director of PR firm Fishburn Hedges, says: "Shit happens, so it is always best to have every eventuality thought through in advance as a preventative measure, which will usually mean that the matter can be defused long before the worst happens."

Shandwick director Jon McLeod adds: "The real issue is about the control-oriented culture of law firms and chambers, and it is natural that culture should exist, given the driving principle of client confidentiality. A great leap of faith is required to treat public relations and media communications as a professional discipline like any other. And there is a sceptical wing that thinks it is all froth. The reality is that an ill-considered approach can cost real money."

He adds that the main stumbling block to paying internal and external PR people is that "you have to pay money out when you are not visibly getting anything back. But when you do have a crisis, you will have the systems and resources in place to tackle any problems. It must be seen as an insurance strategy".

There is also a general misunderstanding of the rules of engagement – lawyers may be flattered to be approached for comment, but as Stapley says: "It is vital that you collect your thoughts and have something worth saying. Most importantly, if a lawyer has acted less than appropriately, then that should be acknowledged rather than being defensive."

McLeod also says lawyers often cause problems with their pedantic approach – a natural product of the nit-picking legal culture of negotiations and settlements but entirely inappropriate for press relations.

"When it comes to actual press contact, some lawyers are very adept and articulate, but the majority are afraid," he adds. And it is that panic factor which leads to problems. The dilemma is to tread the fine line between being useful to the press, rather than just a rentaquote.

The consultants' advice is that lawyers must also appreciate the difference between what is on and off the record – the best way to float an idea is not to have it attributed to you, so it is a matter of building up a reciprocal relationship with a journalist.

McLeod adds that you have to pick the right spokespeople and let it be known that they have the authority to act and to respond, "without hiding behind the 'no comment' reply, which can suggest that there is something there for the press to cover. Even if you are saying nothing, say something".

In line with the insurance strategy approach to media management, it seems that lawyers should take a belts and braces approach to the media – know when to brace yourself, and when to belt up. And if you have done any legal work for the "People's Princess", do not send a bill.