The Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog had this interesting post on the Robertson v. Princeton website, a classic example of litigation public relations.

Litigation PR is NOT crisis management:

In a piece entitled So Sue Me!: The Growing Popularity of Litigation Public Relations, author Katie Dageforde does an excellent job of both explaining what litigation PR is, and just as importantly, what it’s not. Here’s an excerpt (it’s long, but worth it):

Some people argue that litigation public relations is just another form of crisis management. However, the two areas of public relations could not be more different. They may have similar goals, but the conditions under which they work are not the same.

In his book “In the Court of Public Opinion,” John F. Haggerty, president of The PR Consulting Group in New York, explains why crisis management is not the same as litigation public relations.

“Companies and consultants skilled at crisis communications are usually ready to respond to any crisis, anywhere, at a moment’s notice,” he says. “While all of this may be necessary if the crisis is a lawsuit, litigation PR is much more than this—and strict reliance on classic crisis communications techniques can sometimes do more harm than good.”

One of the reasons Haggerty uses to differentiate litigation public relations from crisis management has to do with time span. A crisis manager’s job is usually implemented during the 24 to 48 hours right after the incident. However, because lawsuits can take several months or even years, a litigation PR specialist’s job is ongoing, and he or she needs to be able to maintain a steady amount of pressure over long periods of time. Because of this reason, normal PR “events,” such as press conferences or rallies, are not as effective as they would be in other areas of public relations.

Litigation public relations is also allowed to break another cardinal PR rule. In most crisis situations, the client is usually positioned as the spokesperson so that the company or individual appears more personable and sincere. However, since lawsuits often revolve around very complex issues that the general public may not understand, the client may not be the best choice for spokesperson.

“Litigation PR is one of the few areas where you can hand off the spokesperson’s role to one of the attorneys on the case without fear of repercussions,” says Haggerty. “These are, after all, legal issues we are dealing with.”

Non-profits and litigation PR:

It seems to me that trust/probate litigation involving charities is especially ripe for this tactic.  By the way, it should also be noted that in a sharp break from prior law, under Florida’s new trust code settlors of charitable trusts will now have standing to sue the charitable beneficiaries of their trusts under F.S. 736.0405(3).

Back to the main point of this blog post.  Here’s a sampling of what the Robertson family website has to say in their war-of-words against Princeton:

In a subsequent amended complaint, filed in New Jersey Superior Court on November 12, 2004, the plaintiffs expanded their charges, alleging that Princeton has:

  • Wrongfully spent more than $100 million of the Robertson Foundation’s money on programs, projects, salaries, bonuses, buildings, equipment and “overhead” costs that have little or nothing to do with the Robertson Foundation mission.
  • Engaged in an fraudulent cover-up scheme, involving several Princeton administrations, to hide the improper spending.
  • Similarly misused other donors’ gifts in what appears to be a systemic university-wide “pattern and practice of diverting [donations] from their intended purpose.”

In January 2006, the estimate of more than $100 million in improper spending was more than doubled, to more than $207 million (nearly $500 million in 2006 dollars).

Not to be out gunned on the PR front, this is a sampling of Princeton’s rebuttal:

Today’s briefs show that the University paid many costs that it could have charged to the Robertson Foundation under the Foundation’s Certificate of Incorporation. As a result, the Foundation was charged some $235 million less than it might have been—an amount greater than all of the “overcharges” alleged by plaintiffs combined.

Clearly the PR battle going on here is an integral aspect of the case . . . and both sides seem to believe success in the courtroom/settlement conference room will turn in large part on who wins the PR battle.   I also think that the first side to realize PR would play a large role in this case probably had the first-mover advantage (based on the clippings excerpted in the Robertson family website, I would guess they were probably the first to go on the PR offensive).

Note to self:  when it comes to litigation PR, be the first mover.