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"Lawyers turn to PR operatives to win reputational war"

"The Australian" July 28, 2012. Sally Jackson 

THE phenomenon of lawyers working with PR people to run high-profile cases in the media as they are being run in the courts, still deeply frowned on in some quarters, is an increasingly popular tactic and will continue to become more common, representatives of both sectors say. 

The issue of the media's involvement in litigation has become a key point in the sexual harassment suit brought against stood-aside Speaker Peter Slipper, with lawyers for the commonwealth and Mr Slipper arguing that the fact representatives of accuser James Ashby had liaised with journalists went to prove there was a conspiracy against their client.

Arguing in the Federal Court this week for the case to be thrown out, Mr Slipper's barrister, Ian Neil SC, described Mr Ashby's legal representatives, Harmers Workplace Lawyers, as being notorious for using the media to give clients a high public profile, saying the firm "used the media brilliantly to apply the blowtorch".

Mr Ashby's barrister, Michael Lee SC, said the firm Maurice Blackburn, which is representing the commonwealth [ they actually represent Mr. Slipper], had engaged in the same practice, telling the court: "It is commonplace in 2012 for law firms to maximise publicity for cases they commence."

The judge, Steven Rares, concurred, saying: "It may not have been done when I started, but it's common practice now."

While not willing to comment on the case, the PR working with Mr Ashby, Anthony McClellan of AMC Media, defended the practice, saying there was "no point winning the court battle and losing the reputational war".

"Older traditional law firms find this practice an anathema, but a growing number of progressive ones see a need to have a specialist to work with the lawyers to protect the client's reputation, as well as their legal rights," he told The Weekend Australian. "My job is to explain our case with the publicly available information and I think that does good for the system as a whole. What goes on in the courts and court documents should be more available to the public, not less." 

On April 14, Slipper staffer Karen Doane contacted Mr McClellan, who quoted her an hourly rate of $550 plus GST for services that included advice on "an issues management and media management strategy that prosecutes the most positive case for your position".

High-profile cases that have played out largely in the media, and settled out of court, include Christina Rich's harassment case against PricewaterhouseCoopers, lung cancer sufferer Nolah McCabe's suit against British American Tobacco and Kristy Fraser-Kirk's sexual harassment claim against former David Jones boss Mark McInnes. Mr McClellan and Harmers also handled the Rich and Fraser-Kirk cases. 

Mr McClellan said he had been asked to speak at three legal affairs conferences in the next six months on the role of the media in litigation."It's quite a small area of expertise because, quite frankly, it is a difficult and complex area. It isn't just putting out a press release on toothpaste. The legal complexities involved make it a bit of a high-wire act."

Incorporating the media in a legal strategy can help counter negative information about a client. Rather than the media being merely an adjunct to legal strategy, lawyers were increasingly approaching the courts  to help them in the media, said Matt Horan of Brisbane communications advisers Rowland, who has experience in litigation PR support. "You're watching law firms become PR firms in that they're pushing a very public agenda that happens to be also in the courts," he said.

Class actions are also often highly publicised. Making headlines this week was the suit brought by thalidomide victims against German pharmaceutical company Grunenthal, which is being handled by class action specialist Slater & Gordon. James Higgins, general manager of class actions at Slater & Gordon, said the issue of launching litigation to create a media story was "a particular area of concern for lawyers".

"The high-profile media will not win you litigation in Australia. You ultimately have to go before a judge and win the case on the law," he said.

 The Sunday Telegraph, Edition 1SUN 12 AUG 2001, Page 095 By: Nathan Vass 

Anthony McClellan's business is managing other people's crises. Nathan Vass reports. “The people I work for are not professional targets, like politicians'' At the height of the Trinity Grammar School scandal, crisis manager Anthony McClellan received 200 phone calls a day from various journalists. McClellan was called in to help deal with media demands after The Sunday Telegraph broke the story of allegations of a small group of students sexually assaulting each other. Trinity's reaction was typical of how modern organisations respond to trouble. In the past, the first phone call was to the lawyer, the accountant or maybe even the medical specialist. Now, when trouble is brewing, they frequently call for a media manager to help them cope. “An organisation's reputation is its key asset,'' says McClellan, who refuses to discuss his clients' private or business details. McClellan, 51, with 25 years in broadcast current affairs journalism behind him, has “managed'' the media in some of the biggest headline-grabbing news stories of recent years. His AMC Media has helped Trinity Grammar, and former 2UE boss John Conde during the cash-for-comment controversy. His years in the media help him formulate strategies such as telling clients to do one-on-one interviews, rather than facing a press conference, “where journalists feed off each other''. This was the key to his handling of the Trinity scandal, when headmaster Milton Cujes conducted up to 20 individual media interviews in one day. It has been a dramatic career turnaround for McClellan. By his own admission he fostered foot-in-the-door journalism through senior roles at A Current Affair, Sixty Minutes and Witness, and is now handsomely paid to keep former colleagues at bay. “There is an inequality in the power relationship between the media and the people they report on,'' says the triple Logie winner for current affairs. “I thought I knew the media was powerful when I was at Sixty Minutes, but I probably didn't appreciate the full extent of the inequality. “The ferocity of the media spotlight changes people's lives. It is unexpected, it is unrelenting and unforgiving. “In many cases, it is justifiable. But the people I work for are not professional targets, like politicians.'' About 25 years ago, McClellan was involved in an incident which was to shape his career. As a keen young journalist, he allowed a stranger to put a hood over his head, bundle him into a car and drive him to a secret location. There, McClellan was handed a copy of the top-secret Beach Inquiry report into police corruption in Victoria. The car then drove off, leaving him in a side street, the dynamite report in one hand, tram fare in the other. To his amazement, on legal advice his employer, ABC TV's This Day Tonight, would not run the story. Frustrated, he moved to Nine's A Current Affair, where owner Kerry Packer agreed to air the sensational story. It kick-started a career which saw him broker two of the most lucrative deals in Australian media history -- Sixty Minutes' interview with Lindy Chamberlain when she was released from jail and Witness's interview with Stuart Diver. McClellan, a defender of “cheque-book journalism'', concedes he now acts for the very people he once “went after''. “I have no regrets, we all change,'' he says. “ Just like they have a right to have a lawyer if they appear in court, people have a right to representation in the media. ENDS(edited)