I’ve written before that plaintiffs’ lawyers consider public relations to be an important weapon in their arsenal. But how, exactly, do they use it when they’re involved in a case?
Recently, a collection of emails between the former Scruggs Katrina Group (the firm former lawyers Richard and Zach Scruggs put together to prosecute class-action and qui tam claims related to Hurricane Katrina) and PR firm The Rendon Group were made public, providing an inside look at how the relationship can work. (For the story on why these emails were made public, see Rendon Group, Inc. v. Rigsby, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60138 (D.D.C. Jun. 17, 2010).) The emails were first made available by Mississippi’s YallPolitics blog, and have also drawn comment from the bloggers at Overlawyered and The Insurance Coverage Blog. (In fact, the Insurance Coverage Blog features prominently in the emails themselves.)
So, assuming the normal warnings in a case like this (every case is unique, blogger may not have perfect information, be careful what you read on the internet …), what can we learn from these emails? (Citations are to Bates numbers in the collection.)
- Public relations does not mean just press relations. It should come as no surprise that many of these emails between a plaintiffs’ firm and a PR firm concerned newspaper coverage. But some involved less traditional media. As Overlawyered and The Insurance Coverage Blog note, some of the emails discussed ways of countering the ICB's coverage of SKG. And, more interesting, some emails reported on how Rendon employees built a favorable Wikipedia page on qui tam plaintiffs the Rigsby sisters. (TRG 000957)
- Negotiating around public officials can be difficult. I’ve written before about how plaintiffs’ lawyers seem to have a love-hate relationship with public officials and politicians. On the one hand, they can be a valuable source of information and pressure. On the other, they can have different, conflicting agendas. As one of the PR executives describes it: "This is a lawsuit. The game is that the lawyers and judge surprise attack each other constantly. Throw in a Senator, Congressman, Attorney General, Governor and about 2 dozen major news outlets....much less State Farm's PR engine...you never know what's going to happen or when." (TRG 001118)
- Plaintiffs' lawyers have differing agendas. This should come as no surprise to most defense lawyers. But watching the mechanics from the inside is always instructive. As Scruggs himself puts it: "Maybe I should resume trying to build plaintiff lawyer consensus, although SF has hitherto opposed it, probably because there were already too many moving parts. Senter wants peace--not process, e.g., our class bringing only the latter. Walker would be given orders to broker peace, altho Merlin and the like want only piece and Judy/Anita only blood." (TRG 001145)
- Sometimes, the PR target is not the defendant, but the judge. It’s no secret that plaintiffs frequently look for intelligence on judges. (And there are emails in this collection that discuss the judge’s age, his class action experience, and the fact that he “Gets overturned a lot.” But what may be surprising is that plaintiffs also use public relations as a way of putting pressure on the judiciary to rule their way. As one email from Rendon reveals, "We think SF should not be the focus but the judiciary." (TRG 001598) What does that mean? From the same email: “Getting the Wash Post, Legal Times, National Law Journal etc to be interested in the issue. Maybe court TV... client wants John Roberts to be aware of the dysfunction.”
What’s the lesson we can learn from this? For class-action plaintiffs, litigation can be a multi-front war. While the defendants may not choose to fight on every front, they should at least be aware of what those fronts are.