New Legal Privilege for Your PR firm
Among the strange legacies of the corporate scandals, add this: Under some circumstances, a judge has found that a publicist cannot be compelled to answer certain questions about a client in court. It began when a PR consultant was subpoenaed to turn over documents to a grand jury concerning her client, an unidentified CEO whose legal woes, according to the judge's ruling, were "a matter of intense press interest." Because the CEO's lawyers subcontracted the flack to defend their client in the press, they argued that she was covered by attorney-client privilege. U.S. District Court Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of New York agreed, writing that good lawyering sometimes requires "frank discussions" with PR people. Speculation on the CEO's identity has centered on Martha Stewart, in part because U.S. Attorney James B. Comey, who is prosecuting Stewart, argued the case against confidentiality before Kaplan. However, Stewart's attorney, Robert Morvillo, denies she is involved. Reaction to the decision has been mixed. "Public relations agents may be needed to publicize aspects of a client's situation, but that's not legal advice," says University of Virginia law professor George Rutherglen. But PR pros counter that companies' communications and legal strategies are increasingly intertwined. "The frequency with which I'm involved with legal counsel has increased an extraordinary amount," says Geri Denterlein, of Denterlein Worldwide in Boston, who says 40% of client referrals come from law firms. So to the old advice--at the first sign of trouble, call a lawyer--add this codicil: Have that lawyer dial a publicist.