Communications Advice for Courts in a Crisis (or Undergoing Reform)

By Robin Campbell posted 07-05-2017 08:22

As anyone familiar with Smart Pretrial can tell you, PJI views effective communications as an essential component of system change.

Beth Riggert, Communications Counsel for the Supreme Court of Missouri, makes a similar case in an article titled "Controlling the Message in Times of Court Challenges," in the National Center for State Courts' newly released Trends in State Courts. Riggert's focus is on court communications in crises, but her advice applies as well to efforts to improve a system—to give a favorite example: when taking steps to replace money bail with decisions based on risk.  

The essential problem, Riggert observes (citing a court official from Missouri), is that " cannot blame the public for getting things wrong if you are doing nothing to help them get it right."  She continues, "As in sports, the best defense is a good offense—the more citizens appreciate the value of fair and impartial courts in their lives, the more understanding and supportive they will be when courts face challenges or crises."

The premise here is that the moment of crisis is the wrong time to begin a communication effort. Anyone who has witnessed the slow grind of message-making in a volatile situation, as I have, will appreciate this—because the process isn't pretty.  Various players—including, and especially, legal counsel—tweak, refine, and otherwise stamp the life out of a statement that the media are champing at the bit to receive in time to make their deadline. Not surprisingly, the result is usually underwhelming. 

In the current media climate, Riggert correctly argues, folks are expecting candid, credible, and swift information (often delivered via social media).  Providing this kind of information is a lot easier when there is an established relationship of trust and respect that has been cultivated in advance.  

I don't want to cite Riggert's thoughtful recommendations here. I urge interested readers to get them directly from her article—it's a quick and enjoyable read.

The point I want to make is that that system change efforts, while not the same as crises, benefit from the same kind of advance work.  I would even go so far as to suggest that system change presents an opportunity for courts—and others—to begin cultivating the respectful, trusting relationship that is needed in times of trouble. 

Court and pretrial justice operations are complex issues for the non-specialist to appreciate. An intentional effort to help the public understand how these systems work—and how stakeholders are working to make them even better—can help earn the trust and respect that will smooth over times of challenge.