Privilege Issues in the Media Firestorm

by Bond Schoeneck & King PLLC
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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.netThe situation has become all too familiar: an incident of prurient interest — whether actual or falsely alleged — goes viral on social media before university officials can even ascertain the names of the parties involved.  Before anyone can take a breath, news vans have encircled the campus, hauling reporters who possess a keen eye for rash judgments and scapegoating, irrespective of that increasingly elusive concept known as truth.

One of the most well-known of such incidents was, of course, “Duke lacrosse.”  What may be less known is the eloquence with which Duke’s President, Richard H. Brodhead, gave a most instructive post-mortem about the lessons learned:

I’ll end with the deepest lesson this case taught me.  When I think back through the whole complex history of this episode, the scariest thing to me, is that actual human lives were at the mercy of so much instant moral certainty, before the facts had been established.  If there’s one lesson the world should take from the Duke lacrosse case, it’s the danger of prejudgment and our need to defend against it at every turn.  Given the power of this impulse and the forces that play to it in our culture, achieving this goal will not be easy.  But it’s a fight where we all need do our part.[1]

The siege on Duke could have easily happened to any higher education institution and has, in fact, happened many times since.  Universities earnest in their desire to avoid “instant moral certainty” when faced with the hot lights of the media whirlwind have developed processes and procedures — “media kits” if you will — to proactively prepare for such incidents.  This preparedness often, and quite wisely, includes a public relations firm that can be on-call when needed.

For those institutions with public relations firms on retainer, unintended privilege issues may arise in subsequent litigation.  These situations typically play out as follows.  The story hits the media.  Institutional officials, legal counsel and the public relations firm enter a virtual bunker to plan a cogent strategy.  The institution wants the outside world to know of its diligence, legal counsel wants to ensure compliance with investigative legal requirements, and the public relations firm wants to quell the storm while portraying the institution in its best possible light.

Intertwined in the bunker discussions are both legal considerations and the compelling public relations considerations.  We are, after all, part of the same team, and strict legal compliance makes for good public relations.  The problem though is that once legal brings public relations into the fray, communications between the two may lose the cloak of attorney-client privilege.

This recently played out in the case of Waters v. Drake, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 164179 (S.D.N.Y. 2015).  In Waters, Ohio State University terminated the Director of its marching band after it had conducted an investigation resulting in a report outlining a “sexualized” culture with the marching band.  Litigation ensued, and the plaintiff sought discovery of communications between university counsel and the public relations firm hired by the university to advise it.   The university argued that such documents fell within the attorney-client privilege and were therefore immune from discovery.  The court flatly rejected this argument, holding:

If … legal counsel[] involved the public relations firms not as part of his effort to provide legal advice to the University, but as part of an effort to craft announcements which would be more palatable to the media or the public, he was not using the consultants in order to help him as a lawyer, but to help the University as a public institution anticipating a public relations campaign. Under that scenario, sharing otherwise privileged documents with the consultant is a waiver of the attorney-client privilege, and communications directly with the consultant are not privileged at all.

Waters, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 164179 at **6-7.

Although the court eventually denied discovery based on relevance, it reiterated a quote from other cases: “case law makes clear that a media campaign is not a litigation strategy.” Waters, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 164179 at *6 (internal citations and quotations omitted). Waters is not binding on other jurisdictions, and may be distinguishable on its facts such that the privilege may still apply.  What constitutes a “media campaign” may not fit easily into a one size fits all definition.  Nonetheless, the holding in Waters is of sufficient concern that it ought to be considered on the front end of a crisis.

Moreover, Waters and the cases it cites do not eviscerate the value and importance of public relations firms.  Indeed, such firms have a critical role to play in making sure an institution exercises due caution in undertaking a thoughtful investigation in the face of the media and the public at large demanding instantaneous conclusions and punishment.   Legal counsel, however, ought to be careful not to discuss legal strategies with their outside public relations advisors that may be relevant to a subsequent lawsuit.  Such discussions may well lose the cloak of privilege and thereby find themselves in front of the eager eyes of a plaintiff’s attorney envisioning a hefty payday.

[1] See Duke President Shares Lessons Learned, Regrets About Lacrosse Case, Duke Today, September 29, 2007, available at hhtps://today.duke.edu/2007/09/rhb_lawconf.html

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.

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