The top outside public relations firms excel at guiding law firms and other clients through high-profile litigation and other reputational challenges. The very best, like Infinite Global, also see strategic opportunities for clients during enormously complex phases – including, for example, the ongoing era defined by a global pandemic and sweeping social justice movements like Black Lives Matter. Among Infinite’s innovators in this area is its head of the professional services group in the UK, Ryan McSharry, who stresses that dealing with PR “landmines” proactively is easier than cleaning up problems later. McSharry also led the firm’s data-driven analysis of the media footprint of large law firms with its publication “The Global 200 in Profile.”
Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the types of services you provide?
Ryan McSharry: I provide strategic PR services to domestic and international clients, advising on their media, brand and marketing communications activity. I also specialize in crisis and litigation scenarios, working to mitigate risk and protect reputations when it matters most. In the legal space, I have been lucky to work on significant and high-profile matters and I regularly advise leading city law firms, and individual lawyers, on the full spectrum of communications activities, from corporate positioning and the business of law to campaigns and contentious issues, which in recent years have ranged from cyber-breach and financial restructuring to collective actions and market manipulation.
LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve worked on for a legal client?
RM: A number come to mind – it’s an interesting job. Certainly one of the more remarkable was working with the former Managing Director of a global retail brand in relation to criminal charges brought by the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) in relation to a £250M accounting scandal.
In close collaboration with his legal counsel, my team and I provided comprehensive litigation PR and personal reputation management support over an extended, and very eventful, period: The first trial was halted on the eve of verdict due to a co-defendant’s ill-health and the second collapsed after the judge ruled that there was no case to answer. It was an extraordinary defeat for the SFO. The very public acquittal of the defendants raised serious questions not only about its decision to prosecute, but also its decision to strike a £129M plea bargain with the retailer since no one was convicted.
LD: Are there any trends you are seeing in your area of consulting or advising in terms of the types of matters keeping you busy these days?
RM: Yes, crisis management and reputation are at the top of the agenda. The events over the last 18 months represent of a quantum leap in terms of how organizations’ risk profiles have evolved. The unprecedented shock of Covid-19, as well as the significant impact of the Black Lives Matter movement and others, have left an indelible mark upon the nature of reputation management for individuals and brands in every corner of the economy.
In this new reality, new – or significantly adapted – thinking is required, particularly as narratives both positive and negative have the potential to spread like wildfire. We’re seeing that the traditional risk management approach is being replaced by the need to be more informed, scenario-tested and capable of dealing with emerging risks that can move from being on the horizon to being front of mind very quickly. There is also an awareness that the pandemic has created an unprecedented opportunity to build business resilience by investigating and uncovering reputational landmines: getting your house in order is always better than scrambling to clean up a mess.
In the legal sector specifically, we are busy working with leadership teams as they engage in reflection and reorientation around the extent to which stakeholder expectations have shifted. The pandemic has changed the rules of the game, and law firms need to adapt their thinking accordingly. The pandemic has intensified critical questions around the role of the legal sector in society and the nature of good corporate citizenship. Firms seen to be failing in their duty towards employees, supply chain partners and other stakeholders, or acting out of step with prevailing public sentiment around broader societal responsibilities, should expect significant scrutiny.
LD: What advice would you give potential clients in terms of how to most productively work with an outside advisor?
RM: External PR support is very powerful, but success depends on finding the right partner. Most top law firms will employ an outside team of media professionals, but we can only really make a difference if we are treated as an extended part of the internal team, fully briefed and able to advise strategically. Too many clients think that they need to keep PR consultants behind the scenes, which is a mistake: The outside team’s success is your success.
The relationship needs investment from both sides, but the really important thing is to keep lines of communications fluid and continuous. Where emergent reputational issues arise make sure that the external media advisors are always some of the first people to be told – your consultants can only be as effective as you allow them to be, it’s no use bringing them in when it’s too late.
LD: To the extent your business involves innovation in the legal industry, what is it you are trying to achieve that will help your clients or their business?
RM: The best PR campaigns always start with understanding – an understanding of your target audience, the wider media landscape and, ultimately, how your story is received – and the increasing quality of campaign information now available presents multiple opportunities for innovation. In a digital world, data is driving an increasingly intelligent approach to PR, and one that the legal industry is starting to embrace.
Indeed, I recently used new data insights and original analysis to create a first of its kind report that quantifies and benchmarks law firm profiles. By investigating the media footprints of the Global 200 law firms, the report openly defines parameters for media success and explores the process behind excellent media performance. In continuing to leverage data insights to monitor profile, measure success and document challenges overcome, we can better understand the efficacy of our communications and further evolve best PR practice, not just for our clients but for the benefit of the industry at large.
LD: Are you involved in any community or public interest activities? Please tell us what you find meaningful about your time serving them.
RM: We recently unveiled a new initiative across our global business to contribute significant resources to the fight against the impacts of climate change. At the heart of the program is a firm-wide commitment to undertake pro bono media activity for clients that relates directly to their efforts to combat climate change. Further efforts include joining the SME Climate Commitment, which is recognized by the United Nations Race to Zero campaign and requires the firm to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050, if not sooner.
Such activity is not commonplace in the PR industry, but we believe it to be a critical part of generating real momentum. It is our hope that by contributing our communications and stakeholder engagement expertise we can help to make a tangible difference on this crucial issue.