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Winning in both the court of law and the court of public opinion

The court of public opinion or the court of law - there's a common misconception that you can't win in both. Within an organization, the legal and communication teams have long been at odds with one another, akin to the CEO's devil and angel on their shoulder - one advocating "say nothing" the other "say everything!"

Matt Maruca, Founder, and Principal of Maruca Strategic Counsel, believes this perception is long overdue for change, and that if a bridge is built between legal and communications they could win in both courts. "When you put the business first and your function second, you will see that legal and comms share many common issues they can work together to fix," he says.

The term multi-disciplinary counsel describes Maruca well. He has worked in politics, law, and communications. His career began in politics, working for several federal cabinet ministers, with a desire to make change through advocacy. "I didn't want to just help politicians make laws, but rather help people and companies navigate them," said Maruca. Through his work, Maruca began to realize the weight of the law in creating political and legislative change and decided to study it. His legal career began in private practice, but years of burnout, coupled with the realization that law firms were slow to embrace change, saw him move in-house.

In-house, Maruca became aware of the connection between issues shared by the legal and the comms teams. "I noticed that building reputation and potential reputational damage concerned both functions, and I lobbied the CEO to step up our comms strategy at the time."  

His wish was granted and Maruca found himself spearheading the comms strategy and team. Then imposter syndrome hit. "Like most lawyers, I felt a need to be certified," he says. This led to more study, this time a Masters of Communication Management at McMaster and Syracuse Universities, where he learned about reputation, issues, and crisis management while focusing his thesis research on the relationship between legal counsel and communications professionals. Maruca remains the only lawyer in Canada to obtain such a degree.

Through his research and work experience, Maruca has identified several ways to build a bridge between legal and comms:

Drop the misconceptions

"Legal and comms don't really speak the same language," he says. They have a largely ad hoc and reactional relationship. It is crucial they make a conscious effort to engage one another regularly in proceedings that could impact the other function. For comms officers, this means dropping the perception that lawyers will say no to communicating with the public.

"My research shows that lawyers and communicators say the court of public opinion can do more damage than a legal loss, including financial damage. That was not the case when I started practicing," says Maruca. This change in attitude means lawyers are much more willing to work in conjunction with comms teams on a strategy for public outreach rather than shut them down.

In-house counsel must ask themselves, "Will my communications colleagues know what I'm talking about?" Maruca says, "If the answer is no, work on your communication." Lawyers can make the mistake of assuming people understand legal jargon, and they alienate others by not communicating dense information in non-legal terms. "Both functions need to make an effort to educate each other, but also learn each other's language," advises Maruca.

Realize today's problems take collaboration to fix

The issues that plague today's companies are complex, and frequently concerning stakeholder perceptions. Gartner states: "The next wave of transformation that organizations face will have a societal focus, which means that, going forward, long-term value creation will require a corporate focus on society."

An increased focus on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues will dominate the roles of General Counsel, Chief Legal Officer, and Chief Communications Officer. According to Maruca, ESG problems are best solved without an adversarial legal process. "Today's problems are rarely simply legal issues and require a more than just legal to solve."

Where legal sees ESG as a compliance issue, communications see it as an opportunity to build relationships. "If the functions collaborate together early on, they can embrace ESG as a way to advance the strategic objectives of their business," says Maruca.

Lean into your non-legal toolkit

Maruca believes lawyers often get pigeonholed of their own accord. "We think because we have a law degree and subsequent deep knowledge of the law that we should only do the law," he says. The resulting impact is that lawyers tend to downplay other skills they have, be those in advocacy, communication and strategic and critical thinking. "These skills are needed and utilized in many other business functions but because we also have a law degree, we tend to overemphasize our legal tools and underemphasize our non-legal tools."

Help each other prove value

Legal and comms share a common issue. They are business-enabling, not revenue-generating functions. This means that proving their value to the C-suite and wider business is a necessary and sometimes tedious task.

Maruca says this shared struggle presents an opportunity for the two teams to work together. His advice," the functions can easily compare best practices to help each other measure value, albeit in different ways. I believe this will help build a bond and bridge between the functions."

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