Litigation can often be used as a PR tool by parties seeking to gain public attention and support for their cause. This is particularly common amongst big corporations or people of public interest, who use court proceedings to set an example rather than for the outcome per se. In the following you will not only find a short introduction to the topic, but also a brief analysis of a recent example of litigation being used as a PR method successfully.
What is Litigation PR?
Litigation as PR involves managing the communication process during a legal dispute and can help to position the client as a sympathetic figure. In a legal dispute, one party may try to position themselves as the victim, wronged by the other party. By doing so, they can gain public sympathy and support. For example, a plaintiff in a personal injury case may use litigation PR to highlight the extent of their injuries and the impact they’ve had on their life, making them a more sympathetic figure in the eyes of the public.
In addition to that, litigation can also be used to shape the narrative of the dispute to a clients benefit. In any legal dispute, there are often multiple sides to the story, that can be used to the client’s advantage. This can involve highlighting certain facts or downplaying others to make the client look better in the eyes of the public.
As a result, the primary aim is to influence the public opinion and win the case in the courts of the people. In high-profile cases, public opinion can have a significant impact on the outcome of the case. Swaying the public sentiment in favor of the client can involve media outreach, social media management, and other tactics designed to shape the way the case is discussed in the public sphere.
On the other hand, litigation can be damaging to a client’s reputation, especially if the case involves sensitive or controversial issues. Litigation PR can be used to manage a client’s reputation during and after the legal proceedings. This can involve creating a crisis communications plan, responding to media inquiries, and taking other steps to minimize the damage to the client’s reputation.
All in all, when used for PR purposes, litigation has two key objectives, which are influencing the outcome of the legal matter to their advantage, and protecting the client’s reputation during and after the trial.
In short, litigation PR can be defined as controlling and steering communication processes during legal disputes.
The Current Case: Depp vs. Heard
The divorce of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard is a high-profile case that has generated a significant amount of media attention and public interest. While the case itself is primarily a legal matter involving the dissolution of a marriage, both Depp and Heard have used the media to their advantage to advance their respective positions and shape public opinion.
Heard has accused Depp of domestic violence and obtained a restraining order against him during their divorce proceedings. The allegations were widely covered by the media and led to a public debate about domestic violence and the treatment of women in Hollywood. Heard used the case to raise awareness about the issue of domestic violence and became a spokesperson for various organizations working to combat it.
Depp, for his part, has denied the allegations of domestic violence and has sued Heard for defamation in separate legal proceedings. He has also used the media to his advantage, arguing that he has been unfairly vilified in the press and on social media. Depp’s supporters have launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #JusticeForJohnnyDepp to show their support for him.
Even though it started as a divorce proceeding, the defamation case and countersuit, led to Depp finding a lot of following on social media, while Heard was bashed on the same. This supports a recent statement made by PR professional Justin Ali:
“with the culture of social media trials and public outrage at the drop of a hat, PR has never been as important as it is today.” (Wilson, 2022)
In a moment of realization Heard fired her PR Team mid-trial as she noticed the above stated importance herself, as the headlines were often not in her favor.
The case has been complex and contentious, involving numerous legal filings, witness testimonies, and public statements from both parties. It has raised important legal issues related to domestic violence, defamation, and celebrity privacy, and has generated widespread media attention. Therefore, the Depp and Heard trial is not so much about the $50 million as it is about trying to draw attention to the individuals involved, and first and foremost to give Depp a new lease of life on his career.
Using Litigation as PR
In this case, litigation has been used not only as a legal tool to dissolve a marriage and resolve disputes, but also as a means of shaping public opinion and generating media attention. The case highlights the potential for high-profile divorce cases involving celebrities to become PR battles in the media, with both parties using the case to advance their respective positions and gain public support.
Whatever the strategy is, a great PR agency’s goal is to build, rebuild or maintain their client’s reputation at all costs, before and during a crisis. In the end, reputation can matter more than reality. As Mike Paul states:
“Sometimes the court of public opinion is more important than the court. Because when the trial is over, your reputation and brand still lose for many, many years” (Carter, 2022)
This can also be seen in the significant effects this case had on both Amber Heard and Johnny Depp personally and professionally:
For Amber Heard, the case brought to light her allegations of domestic violence and led to her becoming a spokesperson for various organizations working to combat domestic violence. However, the case also exposed her to intense media scrutiny and criticism, with some questioning the validity of her allegations and others accusing her of using the case to advance her career.
For Johnny Depp, the case tarnished his public image and led to him being dropped from his role as Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The case also led to his defamation lawsuit against Heard and exposed his private life and personal struggles to intense public scrutiny.
The case also had wider implications for the #MeToo movement and the treatment of women in Hollywood. It highlighted the prevalence of domestic violence and the challenges that women face when speaking out about abuse, while also raising questions about the way in which the media reports on such cases and the impact of social media on public perception.
Overall, the case had significant personal and professional effects on both Heard and Depp, while also contributing to larger conversations about domestic violence, gender inequality, and media ethics.
The effects of this publicity-boosting trial can still be seen today, as there is a disproportionally large amount of content online about the PR. Especially the large number of tabloid pieces discussing the case showcases the power of litigation as PR.
It’s important to note that the use of litigation as a PR strategy can be controversial, and there are ethical considerations to be considered. Lawyers and PR professionals should work together to ensure that any communications around the case are accurate and truthful, and that the client’s interests are represented ethically and responsibly.