Image for Depp-Heard Defamation Trial Underlines Need for Strategic PR Counsel

Amber Heard, the ex-wife of Johnny Depp who is suing her for defamation, fired her public relations team because she was unhappy with coverage of the trial. Her action reveals a commonly mistaken impression of the purpose and potential of public relations.

Providing strategic communications counsel to people involved in legal battles is a specialized form of public relations that is a cousin to crisis communications and reputation management. Strategic communications counsel requires a different skillset and an understanding of the legal system that most celebrity PR agents don’t possess. One of the critical skills strategic communications counselors should possess is the ability to paint the unvarnished truth about what can happen, in a courtroom or the court of public opinion. Depp’s graphic testimony is proof.

Strategic communications counselors advise people with all kinds of public perception problems, not just splashy celebrity court fights. The best strategic communications counselors urge their clients to embrace a proactive posture to deal with their day-under-the-hot-public sun. This is especially true if the client is the front-page poster boy (or girl) of a negative story.

Proactive responses won’t by themselves win the day. What they do is change the momentum of a story through an apology or an admission. When the matter is legal, attorneys need to be part of the discussion to weigh consequences of staying defensive or going on offense. There is no right or wrong. However, competent strategic communications counselors introduce factors into the equation that balance reputation against liability.

Underlying this contribution is the reality that PR can’t change the facts. All PR can do is change the conversation and, on a good day, the public perspective.

Ms. Heard appears to have fired her PR firm because she didn’t like what was said in a courtroom, even though her PR team didn’t provide any coaching for the plaintiff or his legal counsel. It might have been fair to fire her PR firm for failing to anticipate what the plaintiff would say and how opposing counsel would position the case, but that’s as much on her as the PR firm for not discussing proactive steps before the trial. In fact, letting the matter go to trial may have been the biggest mistake of all, which wasn’t a decision for the PR firm to make.

To illustrate my point about proactivity, I will recount one of my own strategic communications stories. My client was a well-known businessman who started and managed a family of investment funds. Despite early success, the fund ran into trouble when investors filed legal action alleging my client had engaged in improper and undisclosed investment actions.

Clients must receive strategic communications counsel that is frank, honest and forward-looking. Letting clients harbor wishful thinking or fanciful outcomes is counterproductive and can waste valuable time that could be put to better use with a proactive approach.  

Because of the prominence of my client, the story about the lawsuit was above-the-fold, front-page news for days on end. This occurred before social media was a thing, but if it occurred now, the story would run rampant on digital platforms, spurring angry and malicious comments that could deeply scar a reputation beyond the allegations.

Understandably, my client desperately wanted off the front page, much like Ms. Heard wanted her ex-husband to shut up in the witness chair. In response, I privately approached my client’s defense attorney and asked a simple question: What will you advise our client to admit in court?

The attorney took a day to consider that future courtroom moment and produced a short memo of key admissions. Together, the defense attorney and I asked our mutual client whether he would agree to admit to what was listed in the memo. There was a constructive conversation between client and attorney that produced agreement. I took the client’s willing, admissions and converted them into an open letter, intended for public eyes, not just the plaintiffs and their attorneys.

After a few tweaks for accuracy, I was authorized to share the open letter with the most vigorous reporter covering the story as a scoop. The open letter and an accompanying story, as hoped, appeared on the front page above the fold the next day. The story never appeared on the front page again.

The public admissions also changed the trajectory of the legal action. Instead of a messy court fight over guilt, the battle came down to a more sequestered conversation over money.

The nature of the allegations left an unavoidable dent in my client’s reputation. However, the mature way he owned his mistake saved enough of his reputation that he could move on, which he did.

The anatomy of this example boils down to a simple PR strategy – be proactive. That may mean, as it did in this case, cutting your losses. Other times, it may mean being forceful in making your case, using undeniable facts or unexpected lines of attack.

Above all, clients must receive strategic communications counsel that is frank, honest and forward-looking. Letting clients harbor wishful thinking or fanciful outcomes is counterproductive and can waste valuable time that could be put to better use with a proactive approach.

Strategic communications counselors aren’t called upon for birthday parties or celebrations. They get calls when someone is in trouble, often deep trouble. Counselors can’t make trouble disappear, but they can identify a pathway through the trouble to maintain a semblance of reputation. 

Hopefully, Ms. Heard and her new PR firm will realize that worrying about press coverage won’t make the ugliness disappear.