White collar crime is high-profile: universally treated as scandals, breaches of the law occurring in the business world’s upper echelons, and subject to a high degree of attention and scrutiny by the media.
Often portrayed in a negative light by major news outlets, those charged with white collar crimes appear guilty to the public well before a verdict is ever reached in the courtroom. As such, it’s become common practice for the legal defense team to include public relations firms handling media crews cashing in on an individual’s bruised reputations.
This is a niche specialization, one demanding sensitivity and tact. Some of the most effective public relations campaigns run rich in helpful lessons to effectively execute PR campaigns across a number of potential legal scenarios. Here are examples of such cases, along with tips for public relations professionals focusing on white collar crime.
PR firms need to clarify rules governing media relations they follow with the attorneys on the case. Model Rule of Professional Conduct 84 states attorneys may not “knowingly assist or induce another” to violate their own Rules of Professional Conduct. So, firms working with legal professionals cannot do anything to violate the legal team’s code of conduct, doing so is a violation unto itself. Model Rule 84 does not, however, mean extrajudicial statements are verboten; specificities vary case by case, and it is up to the legal team and PR firm to understand the rules governing publicity of the specific trial before engaging the media.
MWW PR was the PR firm representing the legal team of General Jeffrey Sinclair wielded extrajudicial statements to their advantage. Sinclair was court-martialed in Fort Bragg, NC for alleged rape, misconduct, and other crimes for which he was facing life in jail. Since Army Generals rarely face court martial, this case was front and center in the media. There is a widely held opinion that high-level military officials are not held properly accountable for wrongdoing among their troops. For two years, Sinclair, a decorated war hero, was known as one of this controversy’s figureheads.
The tactic taken by his defense’s public relations teams challenged the military’s typical stance on the media. Rather than concealing evidence used in court, such as email and text-message communications between Sinclair and his accuser, the firm made them accessible to major news outlets. They encouraged journalists to focus on the evidence in the same manner a legal team would implore a jury to do so.
The Internet provides comprehensive access to various journalistic outlets and opportunities for groups or individuals to sway opinion via social media. As opposed to a campaign based on mitigating these effects, Sinclair’s PR team used them to their advantage. Remember hard evidence may not only vindicate defendants in court but by the public as well.
This strategy won’t always work. Sard Verbinnen, one of the most well-regarded PR firms among Wall Street business executives, spends a great deal of its resources trying to keep the finer details of its clients’ cases out of the limelight. This is of heightened importance when an individual is found guilty: whether they are serving jail time or are simply fined, their reputation impacts their personal lives and the lives of their loved ones. But it also impacts the vitality of their companies. The less the public knows before a trial occurs, the more likely the company recovers quickly from association with the actions of one or a few employers. This alleviates some damage done to the public perception of the company.
Whether it is in their best interest to appear transparent or remain tight-lipped, legal teams understand the wisdom of reaching out to public relations professionals to gracefully and effectively engage the media. Much more than a career is at stake when it comes to being charged with white collar crime.
Walking down the street without fear of shame or harassment becomes a daily issue. With a thorough understanding of the case and its legal exigencies, PR firms make a difference for companies and employees caught up in a media scandal.