Jesse Dungan is particularly well-suited for the world of legal communications: He has a background in journalism and an insatiable curiosity for the many ways in which the legal system shapes both our individual lives and the ways companies do business. He thrives on distilling complex legal subjects into media narratives with broad appeal, and works closely with attorneys and C-suite executives to spearhead communications strategies that support company goals.
Dungan often helps shape the press coverage — and therefore popular sentiment — of high-profile litigation matters, giving credence to the importance of the “court of public opinion” in major cases. A reporter for several years in the San Francisco Bay area, he is currently a Vice President at communications powerhouse Infinite Global.
Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the types of services you provide within the legal industry and to whom?
Jesse Dungan: I develop strategic communications plans to help law firms achieve their goals, ranging from winning business and supporting litigation strategy to managing reputations and recruiting new talent. A common thread in much of the work I do is media relations.
I also work with outside counsel on crisis communications plans to protect the reputations of companies and individuals and mitigate the impact of negative news. Sometimes, this means developing a plan to support a litigation strategy, but oftentimes, it means working behind the scenes for matters that never become public.
LD: What do you enjoy about this work?
JD: As a former reporter, I enjoy working with the media, whether it is pitching a story or working with a journalist to flesh out an angle or finding an appropriate source for a piece they are developing.
A big part of what I do is wrapping my head around complex subject-matter and developing a strategy to make it easy for a wide range of audiences to understand. I really enjoy doing this. Every day, my clients handle matters with major implications for the general public, whether arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court or working on a pro bono matter in support of civil rights. But some of my clients don’t always know the best way to frame these matters for journalists or the public more broadly. It is rewarding to play a part in making sure their stories are told accurately and reach the right audiences.
LD: It’s fascinating and such crucial work. You are sort of a translator between the legal system and the media. Are there any matters you’ve worked on that stand out as particularly interesting, either because of the subject matter or the obstacles you had to get the story to light?
JD: A couple matters come to mind.
Early in my PR career, I worked with the winning firm in a U.S. Supreme Court case that made it easier for defendants to recoup attorney fees in frivolous patent lawsuits. It was an important case for businesses and consumers, and my client was on the right side of the issue. It was very rewarding to help drive the communications plan leading up to oral argument and following the court’s decision. Our team secured an incredible amount of coverage to support our client’s position and promote the outstanding work being done at the firm.
More recently, I advised an attorney on a pro bono matter in which he helped negotiate a settlement to significantly reform a state foster care system that had been described as “broken.” My client’s goal was to secure an article in a top-tier publication that would promote a blueprint that other states could use to improve their own foster care systems. While I was able to secure preliminary interest from The New York Times, the publication then declined to cover the story after receiving additional details. One strike against the story were the initial shutdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which was dominating all news coverage. But with a little persistence and patience, I kept working with the journalist to educate him further on the issues. Ultimately, the work paid off with the story my client had envisioned in the Times.
LD: No easy feat when the world was focused on this unprecedented pandemic. Have you noticed any shifts in your clients’ thinking, including as we move through the coronavirus crisis?
JD: Firms and corporations are more attuned to the risk of crises, which has led to greater investments in crisis communications preparation and execution. Companies that have existing crisis plans are realizing the need to actively review these documents and engage their crisis response teams.
The surge in data breaches over the past decade, the devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the unknowns about the future generally are leaving companies with no other option than to make crisis preparation an ongoing investment.
LD: How did you come to the world of legal PR?
JD: I began my career at a regional news wire service, where I earned my stripes early on as a graveyard reporter. I was regularly reporting on stories involving police and fire departments, the most reliable sources for news that breaks in the middle of the night. I rose through the ranks becoming an editor, before moving on to a daily regional newspaper, covering general news in a number of Silicon Valley cities.
My career as a journalist taught me how to ask tough questions, develop story ideas, juggle and prioritize multiple assignments, and meet deadlines. These are all skills that have been invaluable over the course of my career in PR. When I interview job candidates for our own agency, one of the first questions I ask is whether they have any journalism experience.
LD: How would you describe your style or philosophy as a communications professional?
JD: I try to be direct and transparent, and help my clients see the many different outcomes that can be generated by various communications decisions. Together, we confirm their goals and I consult on which communications strategy will best help them achieve their goals. It should go without saying, but PR professionals need to be naturally curious and put their clients’ interests first.
LD: What advice would you give potential clients in terms of how to most productively work with an outside PR firm?
JD: Be responsive and keep your advisors apprised of your overall strategies whenever possible. We do a lot of work behind the scenes, and having insights into clients’ evolving goals is beneficial for both the advisor and firm.
LD: If you weren’t working in legal communications, what would you be doing?
JD: I’d like to say I’d be deep into my career as a starting pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. More realistically, I would have a different job in the communications industry that I find enjoyable, rewarding, and challenging.