Whether you’ve wanted to or not, you’ve likely heard about the acrimonious defamation suit and countersuit between Hollywood exes Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, which ended in the jury finding that both were liable for defamation, though Depp was awarded significantly more in monetary damages.
What you might not have realized is the deep and critical role PR played in the trial.
Litigation PR is a specialized niche in the profession, one that Mike Paul, veteran crisis communications expert and president of Reputation Doctor, refers to as “the brain surgery of PR.”
What is litigation PR?
A good lawyer helps you win in court. A litigation PR pro helps you win in the court of public opinion — which just might also help you win in court.
“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,” Paul said.
A true litigation PR pro doesn’t just work with the client. They must also work directly with the law firm to have that infamous seat at the table all through the trial preparation phase. If you don’t have that relationship with the law firm, you aren’t a real litigation PR specialist, according to Paul.
“You can’t do your job,” Paul said.
That job, fundamentally, is similar to any other PR role: influencing public opinion to achieve a desired attitude or outcome. But it’s performed in the high-stakes arena of a courtroom and is subject to the constraints of the law. Part of that means counseling the client, drilling him or her on the tough questions they’ll be asked so they can present themselves in the best possible light when they’re on the stand.
But the reach extends far beyond the courtroom itself.
How did Depp win the PR game?
Depp started out the trial with a huge advantage. While Heard is an actress, having appeared in such films as “Aquaman,” Depp is one of the most famous and bankable stars of the last 30 years.
This gave Depp two advantages: money to hire the very best teams of lawyers and PR pros and legions of fans.
It was those fans who were the real advantage, Paul said. With millions of fans on every continent in place, including organized fan clubs and social media groups, there was an army of people fired up and ready to advocate for Depp no matter what. All his team had to do was to reach out to the gatekeepers of those groups with classic PR tactics.
The result was a deluge of social media posts supporting Depp and vilifying Heard and a carnival-like atmosphere outside the courthouse.
“This is such a basic strategy, that we utilize it in the PR world all the time, in all kinds of cases,” Paul pointed out.
Heard’s attorney, Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, told “The Today Show” that she believes the presence of Depp fans outside the courthouse and the constant drumbeat of social media posts against Heard contributed to the verdict.
Paul agrees. While judges tell jurors not to consume media about the trial or discuss it with others, in practice this can be difficult, especially when the buzz about the case is so pervasive. And some of that is by design.
“Doing our job to reach stakeholders that are in the court of public opinion, there’s a very good chance that you’re also going to influence stakeholders in the court,” Paul says.
Meanwhile, Heard’s team didn’t marshal support behind her cause from groups with related interests, like organizations that advocate for victims of domestic violence, which made her appear isolated. Several organizations have spoken up since the verdict, especially to offer resources for victims.
The case isn’t over, however. Heard has vowed to appeal. Paul had blunt advice for her.
“To Amber, my message is simple: You have to pick better teams. You need to ask better questions.”