Birds on a telegraph wire

Then Came the Lawyers …

April 2, 2024

I still chuckle and roll my eyes when the latest prescription drug ad says, “Don’t take Wonderdrug if you’re allergic to it.” Well, duh. 

Welcome to the disclaimer pantheon compelling us to write “Caution: Hot” on coffee cups. “Do not attempt” accompanies any example of off-road driving a car is specifically designed and marketed to do. “Contains peanuts” adorns the labels of cans of peanuts.

We live in a litigious society, in case you hadn’t noticed (Disclaimer: I am not a  lawyer, and this is not an offer of legal services).

I’m reminded of a seminal Dire Straits song called “Telegraph Road.” The 14-minute track hauntingly describes the inevitable decline of simplicity into complexity using the metaphor of a decaying town and one man’s dying dreams. These lines in particular stand out:

The came the churches, then came the schools
Then came the lawyers, then came the rules

Each of the advertising disclaimers I mentioned above, including the one about myself, no doubt arose from litigation. Someone burned themselves by spilling their coffee. Someone got hurt when they emulated that “professional driver on [a] closed course.” 

Out of each lawsuit arose rules, and those rules were applied broadly across goods and services marketed to consumers, ostensibly to inoculate them from more lawyers coming for them. Regardless of our yearning to return to a simpler, less litigious, “buyer beware” world, the lawyers and the rules are here to stay (The churches and schools’ futures are far less certain).

As a strategic communication expert – remember, I’m not an attorney or attorney-paid spokesperson – I know that litigation and the threat of it are inevitable. No matter what disclaimers one prints on their product packaging, no matter how well they have insulated themselves from liability, the lawyers are coming. 

That’s why it is critical that your lawyers work closely with your communications team to be ready when that litigation comes. Litigation seldom arises in a vacuum. Lawsuits are filed in reaction to something that happened, or didn’t happen, or should or should not have happened. Those happenings are tied directly to a company or organization’s risks. Those risks are knowable, and strategies can be developed before any of them lead to litigation.

Litigation seldom gets filed immediately. That creates an opportunity for the legal and communications teams to develop their strategy – the legal strategy for limiting liability and the comms strategy for limiting reputation damage. These strategies should be complementary, each supporting the other, just as the teams should be complementary, each supporting the other.

Now is a perfect time for strategic communicators to consult your legal team to understand your liability risks. Now is a perfect time for legal counsel to consult your communications team to understand how those risks impact reputation. You should not wait until high-stakes litigation smacks you in the face to have these discussions. 

The lawyers are coming. Be ready.

“Telegraph Road” written by Mark Knopfler. Use of copyrighted material falls under fair use guidelines pursuant to Section 107 of the Copyright Act. Content intended strictly for educational purposes. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. All rights reserved. No attorneys were harmed during the making of this article. 

Kith facilitates crisis preparedness workshops that will help your company attain the clarity, trust and speed you need to respond confidently – no dithering! – to any crisis. We’d be happy to have a conversation about how we can help your company be ready to chart an effective course to reputation protection. Is your business ready to handle a crisis? Take our Crisis-Proof Your Business assessment and gain valuable insights to prepare your business for any crisis, and subscribe to Crisis of the Month, a quick-and easy crisis exercise that cuts out the newspaper. Once a month, we’ll send you a situation with three questions that you can ask at your next staff meeting. There. You’ve done a crisis exercise and are stronger for it. Sign up for Crisis of the Month here

Jeff Blaylock

Jeff is an experienced strategic communications and public affairs professional who has advised organizations through challenging media and political environments, public affairs campaigns, reputation management, message development and crises.