When lawyers ‘become’ PR practitioners

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

THE Code of Professional Responsibility (CPR) of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines does not mention anything about lawyers handling press relations (PR) works for clients.

What it does say is that a lawyer must serve a client “with competence and diligence” and represent the client “with zeal within the bounds of the law.”

However, Atty. Rameses Villagonzalo said the CPR’s guiding rules may be interpreted in another context and could mean “a bit of PR” but not in a “categorical” manner.


Sub judice rule

He said a lawyer’s responsibility is protecting the client’s interest, which might be the latter’s image.

“If there is black propaganda against my client, I must issue a statement,” he said.

“We are not considering getting favorable decision from the judge.”

He said he is wary of tackling merits of his client’s case in public, fearing he’ll be cited in contempt for violating the sub judice rule.

The sub judice rule restricts comments and disclosures pertaining to judicial proceedings. The Supreme Court, in a host of en banc cases, said this is intended to avoid prejudging the issue, influencing the court, or obstructing the administration of justice.

Villagonzalo and Atty. Maria Jane Paredes, Smart senior manager for public affairs group were panelists in a forum on how lawyers deal with media for their clients.

Briefing clients

Sun.Star Cebu columnist and lawyer Frank Malilong Jr. served as the moderator during the forum, which was held during the Cebu Citizens-Press Council 35th quarterly meeting en banc at the Marcelo B. Fernan Cebu Press Center in Cebu City yesterday.

Villagonzalo is one of the defense lawyers of Bella Ruby Santos, who was charged in court with kidnapping with homicide along with her British boyfriend Ian Charles Griffiths for allegedly killing six-year-old Ellah Joy Pique in 2011.

Since the case is sensational and has drawn public attention, Villagonzalo and his fellow counsels were thrown into the media limelight.

“(My work) is a bit of PR, but my work is not totally PR,” he said.

He said he presumes the judge will not be influenced by his statements to the media.

“If the judge is swayed, there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said.

In dealing with media, he said he evaluates his clients before allowing them to issue a statement before the press.

He allows his clients to talk in public if he senses they have good comprehension skills. He also teaches his clients when to back off from giving comments.

CCPC executive director and Sun.Star Cebu Public and Standards editor Pachico Seares asked Villagonzalo if the latter considers hiring a PR specialist that will serve as his spokesman because lawyers are not trained to handle media.

Villagonzalo said he might, but he added that there are “instances” that a lawyer makes “PR” moves, especially if his client is in trouble in the public eye.

Sun.Star Cebu columnist and broadcaster Bobby Nalzaro said it the lawyers’ job to speak on behalf of their clients because legal matters cannot be delegated to an ordinary spokesman.

“They have to defend their clients before the bar of public opinion,” he said.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on July 18, 2014.

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