When your company scores a victory, it’s not always best to brag about it. In fact, it’s sometimes best for the public to think you lost.
I know this may seem a little counterintuitive to you transparency-preaching (if not always practicing) new-wave flacks out there, but bear with me a minute, OK?
Let’s look at the example of corporate lawsuits. I’m not talking about the kind of lawsuits where two corporate giants are battling each other over trademark infringement, a business deal gone bad, or other such snits. That may get the business wonks excited — but from the rest of the world, it elicits an “Is American Idol on yet?” yawn.
I’m talking about the lawsuits where an individual or group of individuals — a.k.a., “the little guy” — takes on your big, bad Fortune 500 company.
Beating the Little Guy
In the long run, John Maynard Keynes famously said, we’re all dead. Also in the long run (not quite as long, but close), deep-pocketed corporations usually beat the rap when they are dragged into court by an individual they have wronged (or allegedly wronged). This is true no matter how heinous the corporation’s misdeeds (or alleged misdeeds).
Let me guess: You don’t believe me. You’ve read too many of those “little guy wins big” headlines over the years, haven’t you?
Headlines like: “Old Lady Wins $3 Million from McDonald’s for Spilling Hot Coffee on Herself!”
It’s enough to make you pull at your hair and shout, “Damn lawyers!” — isn’t it?
The Fine Print
No one ever seems to read the fine print years later, after the esteemed legal counsel for those deep-pocketed corporations have earned their paychecks.
Remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which devastated the Alaskan coast in 1989? Despite a $5.3 billion judgment, Exxon didn’t pay a dime of it for nearly 20 years. The company only agreed to pay in 2008 — after the damages had been slashed by more than 90 percent.
As for that “old lady” who spilled her coffee — 79-year-old Stella Liebeck — she never did see the $3 million she was awarded in 1994. The judgment was reduced by 80 percent, and the plaintiff, who suffered third-degree burns, spent eight days in the hospital, and endured two years of treatment, settled for even less rather than wait through endless appeals.
And just last week, a respected photojournalist named Chris Usher, who sued Corbis after the stock photo agency lost more than 12,000 of his images — including coverage of the historic Bush-Gore presidential race — had to settle for compensation of just $7 per image after a seven-year battle.
See how it works?
And if you’re going to bring up the Greg Kinnear flick Flash of Genius, don’t even go there. Dude ruined his marriage and his life to win that case.
Hold the Press Release
What happens in these cases, almost invariably, is that it doesn’t turn out as well for the little guy as the media originally reports.
When the end finally comes, your execs may decide to take turns giving each other high fives in the boardroom. That’s fine.
But if one of them calls to tell you to put out a press release about the big win, I’d encourage you to pretend your cell phone is on the blink and to make a staticky hissing sound into the receiver. And if you’re on the office phone, I’d encourage you to pretend it’s your cell phone (the one that’s on the blink).
You see, this is the kind of victory that big companies shouldn’t brag about. Goliath beating David is not good PR for Goliath.
In fact, the best possible PR that companies can get in these situations is what they get without even trying. The media generally does corporations a big favor by losing interest in these legal battles long before the final verdict.
So sometimes when you win, it’s best to keep it to yourself.