In the Court of Public Opinion: Top Tips for Managing It Successfully

by Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP

[author: Andrew Apfelberg]

Today’s ubiquitous social media and 24-hour news cycles create a constant court of public opinion for businesses and corporations. How a company manages the public’s verdict can lead to either derailment or opportunity. Historically, executives braced themselves for the public outcry and high-risk litigation triggered by such large-scale crises as tampered Tylenol or oil spills. What’s new is the influence public opinions increasingly have in day-to-day issues and business deals that previously would have flown under the radar. Recall the recent heat Facebook took when it chose its own COO, Sheryl Sandberg, for its board of directors. How should a smart business act in a world that watches and comments at the speed of a keyboard stroke? It is possible to balance legal risks, company survival and the judgment of the public. The next time your company contemplates an acquisition, introduces a new product or service, or finds itself in the crosshair of a product recall, here are tips for positioning your company in front of a high-profile event:

1. Prepare for the Unexpected

It’s the element of surprise that frequently causes a company to fare poorly in public. The public is unpredictable. Company deals and advances that you viewed as positive, such as a consolidation to increase shareholder value or a product rollout, can cause unexpected negative reactions. Preparation is the only cure for surprise. Act before trouble arises. Assemble a team to devise and execute a comprehensive response plan. Team members should include internal communications and management personnel, along with outside legal counsel, and public relations and investor relations professionals. It’s critical for key advisors to be accustomed to performing cool and calmly under pressure in the public eye

2. Manage Stakeholders and Perceptions

Early in the event, pause and think deeply about the publicity’s affect on employees, shareholders, customers, suppliers and vendors and other stakeholders. Each group has differing financial, emotional and ethical reactions that you need to identify and address. Manage their perceptions – the facts are secondary. Focus first on your critical constituencies: clients, customers, shareholders and vendors. Don’t let competitors, opposing lawyers, regulators and others define your agenda.

3. Remember the Human Factor

Before you slot people into categories, such as customer, employee, vendor, shareholder, lawyer or reporter, view them as human beings first and foremost. Each group will have differing emotional responses. Commonly, people want to be made whole and feel heard more than they want to engage in the legal process and a windfall. For example, when allegations of tainted pet food came to light, the manufacturer faced enraged customers. To turn around the potentially company-sinking maelstrom, the manufacturer did not hide. It stepped up and got ahead of the issue by "walking the land and shaking the hands." Responses were framed to address the deep personal connection between pet and owner. The manufacturer assembled a war chest and offered reparations, including a subsidized pet adoption program. Not only did the company’s approach hit the appropriate emotional note, but it cost far less than defending litigation nationwide.

4. Use Social Media and the Press as a Tool

Use multiple online and traditional media outlets as a tool to understand how your company is perceived. These same media venues are available to disseminate your company’s message. In communication, consistency is power. Outward-facing messages should be consistent and directly address each stakeholder group’s concern. Messages to employees and other internal audiences, who will in turn share those messages with the outside, should be identical to your outward messages, and include findings of your internal team.

5. Apologize without Admission and Other Business-Smart Legal Strategies

Issuing "no comment" statements is a common fallback position favored by some legal counsel. But it’s not necessarily a good business move and usually plays terribly in the court of public opinion. Smart legal strategies go beyond the strict letter of the law. They take into account the business fallout, both short and long term. With skilled legal guidance, your company can bypass the "no comment" trap by offering a statement or apology without admitting wrongdoing.

6. Write Your Own Ending

Even if the initial limelight caught your company off guard, aim to close the matter on your own terms. Clearly demonstrate and communicate the changes your company instituted and any future plans. Following the tainted pet food crisis, the manufacturer’s sales increased significantly, due in large part to its on-target communications and follow-through actions with customers, the press, distributors and suppliers. Whether in your daily operations, during a major transaction, or defending bet-the- company litigation, the court of public opinion need not lead to a damning verdict. It all depends how you manage it.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP

Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at:

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.