Communications strategies during litigation: what impact can PR have on a legal case?
By Alex Felton
Where did all this begin? In April 2018, The Sun newspaper published a column by their executive editor Dan Wootton, entitled “Gone Potty: How can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?”. The offending words that piqued Depp’s litigious interest were the accusations in the headline of domestic abuse towards his ex-wife, the actress Amber Heard.
A bona fide Hollywood A-lister, Johnny Depp sued News Group Newspapers (NGN, publishers of The Sun) over the column, beginning a mammoth legal libel battle that culminated at the beginning of November with the Judge deciding that Ms Heard and the Sun newspaper were on the right side of the law.
Now after all this has been played out in the courts and splashed across newspaper headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, Depp could still appeal the judgement in the UK and is gearing up for another case in Virginia over an opinion piece Heard penned for the Washington Post on domestic violence. Flanked by lawyers, out of the flames, comes a more embittered approach it seems, a man willing and able to fight on two fronts: in court and in the press.
This is a prime example of self-destructive action which would have been better played out in private. The whole affair is going to be incredibly damaging to Depp’s glittering acting career. He has drawn attention not only to his poor treatment of Ms Heard, but to his problems with drink and drugs too. The fact he would want to play this out in open court shows that he has not been able to step back and look at the wider implications this would have.
Clearly, he has suffered from some poor advice, or good advice that has fallen on dead ears. There has been no benefit to having the entire case picked apart not only by the courts, but by the public eye too and it would have been far better for Depp to deal with this behind closed doors. He is in complete denial – don’t sue a newspaper, this ruling upholds that British libel laws are not there to curtail free speech, but to help preserve the media’s right to publish stories of global interest.
Depp is obviously an extremely high-profile actor with some lucrative brand deals, but all of this is going to be impacted by the ruling. Any entertainment company or brand needs to be extremely cautious with who they align themselves with and so will have to think twice about working with someone now convicted of such serious crimes. His reputation is now in negative equity after this devastating ruling.
Showbusiness is notoriously unpredictable and there have been countless examples of high-profile figures continuing to have successful careers after being proven guilty of offences in court. However, domestic abuse is another kettle of fish – it’s going to be hard for Depp to come out of this unscathed.
The only way Depp can make some form of recovery is to admit his problems with drink and drugs along with his wrongdoings towards Ms Heard and show the public he is committed to getting treatment. This can’t just be in the form of a one-off statement either – Depp needs to show commitment to his recovery if he’s going to stand a chance of keeping the public on his side.
Obviously, this is a real success for The Sun newspaper and for Amber Heard. It shows amazing strength of courage and determination to take this action all the way and there could still be more to come. By securing this judgement, both have won in the court of law and ultimately, emboldened their profiles in the court of public opinion.
What impact can PR have on a legal case?
The power of public opinion is well recognised by the legal system; a barrister must not comment publicly during a case, juries must remain silent throughout, and are ‘protected’ from exposure to press which could alter their decision-making. Nonetheless, public opinion can have an influence on the outcome of a case and negative PR can also have a dramatic effect on the client and the legal teams on both sides.
It is foolhardy to deal with a piece of litigation without giving any thought as to how it will be reported, even if you think it might not be. Everything in open court on legal cases will remain a Google search away and can be detrimental to your client, their business and even your firm. PR can impact a business for years to come both positively and negatively. It is vital to be able to manage what is said about your dispute in the public domain.
Should companies speak out or remain quiet during litigation?
Every case is different, but as a rule of thumb, if you believe your case might be in the public domain it is certainly advantageous to have your narrative out first and have some form of control over how the case is reported. If it’s going to end up in the media – you need to be prepared, don’t sit and wait for it to happen.
Seeking out an expert
Managing reputation around disputes requires an expert with the right set of contacts and a very specific set of skills, so ensure your chosen partner specialises in the art of litigation and disputes PR. It’s also vital a bond of trust is developed between the legal team and the PR team. Often pure legal advice is at odds with pure comms advice, so to optimise the outcome for clients, litigators increasingly need a good feel for the balance between the priorities of the law and reputation management, just as specialist litigation PR experts must understand the legal reporting restrictions, the fine details of the case, and the client’s wider objectives.
At what point should you engage with specialists?
Do not just engage a specialist litigation PR team to manage news coverage around a judgment hand-down. Bring them in at the very outset of discussions with your client as part of the wider team to talk about their legal problems and objectives. Your client will be impressed that you understand the overarching importance of their reputation and long-term goals. (