The Six A’s for Managing Legal Disputes

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Kristie Kuhl, JD, Senior Vice President, Makovsky + Co is a counselor on issues that impact biotechnology, specialty pharma, health-product distribution and medical devices. She led issues management teams assisting US-based B. Braun in response to hospital-related crises. Kristie also led the Agency team that launched Alexions Soliris, which has been widely noted as the most successful ultra-orphan drug launch. Kristies legal and communications skills provide keen insight in bringing together communities with diverse interests and creating focus on one patient-driven goal. Clients have tapped her to lead numerous agency brand communications efforts including Abbotts cardiovascular franchise and the Bausch & Lomb employee engagement campaign. Kristie was named honorable mention as the PR News PR People of the Year Team Leader in 2008 and a “Rising Star in 2002 by the Healthcare Business Womens Association.

By Kristie Kuhl, JD (@KPCK)

Litigation in the health products space is commonplace¢‚Ǩ”contesting patents, questioning product safety or concern for marketing practices. In the courtroom, as in business relationships, a good name is invaluable. Solid reputation retains talented colleagues, physician willingness to listen to field staff, patient commitment to medication compliance and Beltway ability to ask before jumping to conclusions. Thats why public relations practitioners require a place at the strategy table during legal disputes¢‚Ǩ”especially when litigation is a possible threat. Their role in aligning opinions, marshalling efforts with advocacy, lobbying and media/reputation management, enable clients to facilitate swift resolution, if possible without going to court.

Should a PR agency determine legal strategy? No, facts and legal strategy drive communication, and, in turn, communication influences strategy. The six “As of legal communications¢‚Ǩ”authenticate, align, accuracy, ally, assess and achieve¢‚Ǩ” offer a framework for understanding and managing the flow of “do or die dynamic.

1. Authenticate

The first step is to authenticate, differentiating assumptions and feelings from fact: Why were there no cases at dozens of other area hospitals that had also received the same product? How was the product received, stored, handled and – administered? Did the hospital in question have a record of safety problems? With patient safety paramount, these questions set the tone for ensuring people stop pointing finger and begin to think about how to guard against immediate risks.

2. Align

Once answers to those questions are discovered, the roundtable of communicators must agree. Thats where the second tenet¢‚Ǩ” align messaging¢‚Ǩ”comes in. Ensure that everyone in the company¢‚Ǩ”legal, management, R&D, marketing, sales¢‚Ǩ”convey the same truths whenever and wherever they interface with customers, be they patients, physicians, payers or media.

3. Accuracy

Always get the facts right, and then move fast to disseminate. One company recognized for this “one company, one voice strategy is Merck. Throughout the Vioxx product liability saga, the company worked to win back its reputation, showing in legal proceedings and in the media that it did not hide the drugs cardiovascular risks and that, therefore, it would contest lawsuits.

4. Ally

Once core messaging has been established, ally with experts who share and can amplify those truths. Cultivate and leverage third-party support¢‚Ǩ”ideally before there is an issue. Always remember, that whether they agree with your position or have their own point-of-view neutral parties will be called upon to comment. If they have no background, they are apt to play it safe¢‚Ǩ”even at your expense.

5. Assess

During a trial, its vital to monitor real-time for litigation-related news. In all legal cases, assessing the mainstream and social media horizon 24/7, preparing and updating standby statements and making executives available for media inquiries is imperative.

6. Achieve

A rule of thumb: dont panic every time you see unfavorable coverage or posts. But dont stand idly by, either. Make sure key bloggers and reporters have the right information, and connect with them to explain complex legalese. Aligning opinions requires people have accurate information, so engage when information is incorrect. Credible third-party leaders can be helpful, too.

PR professionals should work with legal colleagues toward achieving resolution of the dispute, using the clients company mission statement as a guide (e.g., “putting patients first; “the epilepsy company, etc.). PR and policy counsel must ensure that not just shareholders, but stakeholders¢‚Ǩ”including patients, healthcare professionals, policymakers and payers¢‚Ǩ”trust a clients actions. They may not all agree; however, there should be no doubt that what you are saying is true and therefore, the other side of the story.

How collaborative have you found legal and public relations functions?

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