How Not to Address an Accuser in the Media

August 26, 2019

In this era of extreme caution around discrimination, it’s rare to see a powerful organization openly attack an accuser, even as they may be mounting a powerful defense against that accuser’s claims—who needs the bad optics? But that’s not how Jones Day rolls, apparently. The powerhouse firm recently filed a scathing 115-page answer to the collective action filed by a group of former associates accusing the firm of mistreating women, especially mothers. And they took the gloves off.

To the women who allege that the firm advances men while sidelining women lawyers who have children, Jones Day responds, “This warped portrayal of women as weak, powerless, and incapable of making their own choices or taking responsibility for their own actions is as offensive as it is wrong and certainly does not accurately describe the women lawyers at Jones Day.” If we’re reading that right, Jones seems to be saying that the accusers are the real sexists here, and that structural inequality . . . simply does not exist?

Not only is that assertion nearly Trumpian in its doubling down, and made in mind-bendingly bad faith, but it runs so counter to any sane PR strategy that we honestly needed to take a minute over here when we read it.

If your firm finds itself on the wrong end of a discrimination case, make sure you are getting—and taking!—good advice on how to respond. A legal strategy is one thing, but there is a right way and a wrong way to address an accuser in the media. As lawyers, your instinct may be to go for the throat of the person bringing a claim, but consider the potential blowback of such a tactic. Gaslighting an entire class of people is not a good look.

It is possible in your media statements to acknowledge the objectively real structural inequalities that affect people who are underrepresented while also pointing to evidence of the progress you’ve made. “We’re proud of how far we’ve come on this, but like every other firm in this industry we have more work to do to become a truly inclusive workplace that offers equal opportunity for all” might be a good place to start. Or, simply, “We take this matter seriously and are committed to getting to a fair resolution.” Depending on the circumstances, you then may be able to point to success stories or policy initiatives that give your declaration more credibility.

When the heat is on, make sure cooler heads think not just about the short-term play but the long game to preserve your firm’s reputation and brand identity.