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UK: An Introduction to UK-wide

Authors 

Philip Hall, Partner and Head of Portland Disputes  

Philip has advised governments, multi-national companies and high-profile individuals to help manage crises, solve regulatory and commercial issues and protect or enhance reputations.
He has particular experience in dispute and litigation communications. This ranges from a successful multi-billion-euro claim in the European Court of Human Rights to disputes in the UK courts worth over £300 million.
Prior to joining Portland, he was MD of a Westminster-based London agency, and worked for an international financial PR firm. Philip qualified as a barrister and solicitor to the High Court of New Zealand.

Alan Morgan, Associate Director  

Alan is a senior member of Portland’s Disputes Practice working with a range of international businesses and private individuals advising on strategic communications.
A former investigative journalist and political campaign strategist, he now advises on reputation management, particularly during moments of intense political and media scrutiny. Alan as worked on a number of international disputes, including navigating a multi-jurisdictional legal and political dispute involving a sovereign wealth fund in North Africa.
He joined Portland from Ogilvy Public Relations, where he was Deputy Head of Issues and Crisis.

Elise Martin-Davies, Account Director 

Elise is a senior member of Portland’s Disputes Practice and an international media relations, crisis and issues management expert.
Her work involves devising and implementing global litigation communications campaigns. She has launched one of the UK largest group litigations, advised the government of an East African Nation, and managed the litigation communications for a multi-billion-pound transaction.
A fluent French speaker, Elise started her career working at the European Commission in financial regulation communications.

 

Introduction 

The law does not exist in a vacuum. Lawyers operate, quite correctly, within the clearly defined framework of a court room. Your clients and their businesses, however, operate within the wider world of competing media, political and regulatory pressures.

In that wider world, solving the legal aspect of a problem is often not the same as solving the whole problem – and clients increasingly want their whole problem solved.

This is where strategic communications can help. The way in which a company or individual communicates with their audiences can be critical to achieving both short-term and long-term legal and business success.

From the impact on Airbnb’s business following multi-jurisdictional legal and regulatory setbacks, to the recent controversial takeover of GKN by Melrose Industries, business strategies and reputations are made, and can be broken, by the media, politicians and regulators.

The legal strategy comes first 

To protect and enhance your client’s goals and reputation outside the courtroom, the starting point is a clear understanding of the legal strategy, and how effective communications can help reinforce it.

This requires specialist expertise and experience. The rigours of the law and the requirements of the court demand skills and disciplines in addition to those found in typical corporate, financial or personal PR.

A clear understanding of the legal strategy means having command of the facts. Often, additional insights can be gained from primary and secondary research. Only then, with a clear appreciation of the opportunities and risks, can your message be deployed.

Implementing a communications strategy in support of your legal action can take many forms. It can range from journalist briefings to multi-jurisdictional crisis management. Whatever the approach, it is always needs to be carefully coordinated with the legal team.

No comment is not an option 

The information age abhors a vacuum. If you say nothing, the empty space will be filled by someone else – an uninformed commentator, a detractor or your opponent. These comments will then sit online like a stain – always a quick Google search away, to unfairly shape opinions and first impressions.

Reputations are protected and enhanced by proactively managing issues and enhancing advantages before, during and after a legal action. By setting your own narrative, you can manage the current reputation risk and build a reputation that can withstand future attacks.

The new new media  

The media, political elite, and public previously sought out – and mostly accepted – the opinions and reporting of mainstream news outlets. These outlets had a monopoly on information sharing.

Today’s media landscape has been transformed beyond recognition, and the long-term implications will be profound.

Online media platforms and social media have increased the volume and pace of communications globally. Judgements and opinions are developed and sealed based on tweets, Facebook posts and news stories. The Reuters Institute Digital News Report reported in 2017 that 41 percent of people in the UK now use social media as a news source.

When President Trump declared in a tweet that Amazon was doing “great damage to tax paying retailers”, he wiped $5bn off the company’s share price. This was also an attacked aimed at Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post newspaper – a source of much “fake news”, according to Trump.

Traditional media will always have a place in a communications strategy. Technology has, however, fundamentally changed the shape and extent of its influence. Ensuring that your client can communicate their message directly – using social or digital platforms – is integral to managing their reputation.

The future is closed 

The impact of technology has not only affected the open, publicly available platforms. A major shift that has been less commented on is the introduction of closed networks.

Closed networks are self-contained systems in which people connect directly, and which can only be influenced from the inside. Such systems have flourished on platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp.

A leading media agency reported in 2017 that four of the five most popular social platforms worldwide were insular messaging apps. This new, network-based model – which allows people to shelter in communication silos – creates clusters that can be wholly distinct from one another. This has drastically diminished, and in cases eliminated, information flow across groups. It is a setting based primarily on personal preference, with little-to-no guidance or moderation from the traditional media elite.

Influencing narratives now requires an ability to ‘get inside the loop’ by going where people are, rather than relying on them to seek you out. This means that maintaining a good reputation is no longer solely dependent on certain individuals or media spreading your message, but ensuring that you are connecting directly with both open and closed networks.

Reaching the right audience 

Social media is not just a platform for information sharing. Technology advances have allowed us to target more effectively who we share information with. Used thoughtfully and ethically, and in line with all relevant regulations, a data-driven, digital-first strategy can help ensure that your client’s messages are being seen by the right and most relevant audiences.

In group litigation for example, a traditional communications approach might have been to place an advert in a top-tier publication to notify a class of a potential action. It was expensive and difficult to measure. Using social media platforms, you can now choose to target an advert or message to the likely class members - based on their demographic information, location and interests.

In complex, multi-jurisdictional litigation, there are often a number of key audiences. This means a number of different tactics are needed to reach each group of people. From the general public, shareholders, regulators, investors, political parties, the media and think tanks – creating a strategy that reaches each audience in the right way is the only way to achieve success, from a reputational point of view.

What does this mean for you? 

Traditional techniques for managing reputations are no longer sufficient. As with changes to the litigation landscape, the communication landscape has evolved.

Lawyers now need to take into consideration more than just winning in the courtroom. The legal strategy always comes first – but it’s not the full story.