"[I]t is undisputed that the job of [Men's National Team] player requires materially more strength and speed than the job of [Women's National Team] player." “[T]he job of MNT players carries more responsibility than the job of a WNT player.”
Statements like these, reminiscent of Al Capanis’ 1987 comments about how African Americans may not have the “necessities” to be baseball managers, were part of a brief by the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) defending itself in a $67 million equal-pay lawsuit filed by members of the Women’s National Team. Unsurprisingly, they have led to a firestorm that has infuriated players, fans and people who couldn’t care less about soccer.
Coca-Cola, a multi-million-dollar sponsor of US the women’s and men’s teams, issued a blistering statement soon after the brief became public. “We have asked to meet with [USSF] immediately to express our concerns. The Coca-Cola Co. is firm in its commitment to gender equality, fairness and women’s empowerment in the United States and around the world and we expect the same from our partners.”
While US Soccer has apologized for "the offense and pain caused by language in this week's court filing, which did not reflect the values of our Federation or our tremendous admiration of our Women's National Team,” the damage has been done. Thanks to public outcry, the federation has probably pushed itself closer to paying equal wages than it was before it attempted to defend itself in court.
This incident is familiar to many corporate communicators who have had to pick up the pieces after their legal department has taken an action. Lawyers are experts at what they know – the law. They are well-trained, highly-educated men and women who know what it takes to win (or mitigate losses) in their area of expertise. What too many companies and organizations fail to take into account is how their actions can affect public opinion – and how that opinion can influence legal outcomes.
Take the USSF example above. Their reasoning could, in theory, sway a judge that men and women soccer players are not “equal,” and thus should not be paid the same wages. But, as the outcry has shown, those statements have damaged the reputation of the organization and could cost them sponsorships. If the USSF wins this case, and “saves” $67 million, but in the process loses $80 million in sponsorships, it has lost no matter how you look at it. Add to that the message it sends to girls who might consider playing soccer professionally when they grow up, and the court victory becomes completely pyrrhic.
As communicators, we are called on to explain how the public will react to actions and statements made by our employers or clients. Often, it is difficult for us to show the importance of the public compared to the amount that might be lost in court. Highlighting the potential drop in customers, or stock value, that could come from a proposed action can be effective.
It can also be difficult to explain that what wins in court does not always win with the public. In court, you want to prove you are “not guilty.” In the public eye, you need to prove yourself “innocent.” They are not the same thing. I worked with someone, trained as an attorney, who wanted to use the same defense with the media that he would have in a courtroom (“You can’t prove that document is what your source says it is”). I failed to convince him otherwise, and, predictably, the ensuing story did not turn out favorably.
Obviously, losing a court case affects public image—it almost always seals one’s guilt in the public eye. But, often, public image affects court cases. I appeared on a panel with an attorney who spoke about the relationship between the world outside the courtroom and inside it. He said that judges and jurors read the papers (it was a few years ago) and, consciously or unconsciously, it affects their deliberations and rulings. The best attorneys keep this in mind when they prepare for court.
This is not, however, a one-way street. Communicators also need to keep legal implications in mind when we create our messages and statements. It is easy to brush off legal concerns as being “overly cautious,” but, again, they are experts in this area. We may feel, justly or not, that legal concerns get more attention that PR’s do, but we cannot dismiss them outright.
Good management takes both PR and legal into consideration in any public situation. The best set-up is for both sides to present their cases and have a decision-maker (CEO, president, etc.) weigh them both and decide on a direction. Giving too much weight to either legal or PR can lead to damage to the organization or company both legally and in public perception.
Ken Scudder has provided media training, presentation training, crisis communications training and consulting, and writing and editing to business leaders, celebrities, and politicians for more than 20 years.