How companies should handle media attention amid criminal allegations

When companies become tied to a criminal investigation, whether or not it or its employees have actually committed a crime, it can be on trial in both the criminal court and the court of public opinion.

Media coverage today is more than just TV, radio and print media. It now includes the internet and is delivered to personal devices through social media, blogs, videos and podcasts moments after news breaks. Also, while many get their news from social media, the accuracy of that source is often questionable. This has changed how companies handle the public relations aspect of a criminal matter.

“Not long ago, the traditional response to media inquiries regarding alleged wrongdoing by a company was ‘no comment,’” says Rob Glickman, Principal and head of the litigation and criminal practice at McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman.

“That can no longer be the way most inquiries are handled. Adverse media attention can ruin a business. Even if a company that becomes embroiled in a criminal case is eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, it can still lose in the court of public opinion and be driven out of business.”

Smart Business spoke with Glickman about how companies should handle the media coverage often associated with facing criminal allegations.

What should companies do once they discover they or any of their employees are subject to a criminal investigation?
The moment a company finds out it or one of its employees is the focus of, or is even implicated in, a criminal investigation, a company can’t simply stick its head in the sand and hope it will all go away.

The company should direct its lawyer, if capable, or an outside law firm that has experience to conduct an internal, independent investigation of the charges. That way, if asked, a company can truthfully let the public know that it is confronting the matter head on, which will hopefully keep public confidence in the company.

What’s the best way for companies to handle media attention when they’re tied to real or alleged criminal wrongdoing?
In the absence of media coverage, it could be best to go silent and focus on the defense of the actual investigation and case. When it heats up, however, most often a company should respond to media inquiries. That can happen in a number of ways.

The CEO or defense lawyer doesn’t need to be the person who mounts a public defense. Communications firms are invaluable in these situations, and can be brought in to manage public relations and media statements.

Crisis communication consultants are best equipped to handle adverse media attention, especially if a company is dealing with a government prosecutor who is leveraging the media to generate public pressure. It’s important that the company forms a response that’s ethical and in the best interest of the company. That often requires the tact of a third-party consultant.

Social media during such events can be a shield and a sword. The medium makes it easier to respond to adverse attention, giving the accused a means of fighting back with appropriate force. Still, any public response should be run past the legal and communications teams before being released.

What should companies avoid doing when they’re in this position?
It’s important that the company doesn’t panic and respond hastily or through an employee without obtaining advice from a legal or a crisis communication partner. Companies can go on the offensive to attempt to assuage the adverse media attention, if at all possible, and put the company in a position to defend itself against the allegations. But they should do so carefully and after an appropriate internal investigation into the allegations.

What do companies in this position need most from their legal team?
The attorney managing the case should be an expert in the subject matter of the investigation. He or she needs experience in the minutiae of what’s being investigated.

Adverse media attention doesn’t necessarily mean a company is headed for public disaster. If handled appropriately, it likely won’t be the death knell for the company.

Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman