Thursday, July 8, 2010

Westwood College Employs Litigation Communications To Protect Its Reputation

As I have noted in previous posts, one of the goals of litigation communications is to protect the client’s image during a lawsuit. A litigation communications specialist should understand the law, the legal process, and the media in order to be able to effectively work with the client’s legal counsel and ensure that the client’s positions are presented to the general public and all key stakeholders, such as shareholders, customers, and business partners, in a way that protects the client’s image without compromising its legal positions.

The widespread use of social media has raised the stakes even higher, such that in some instances the actual outcome of a case may be insignificant when compared to the reputational damage inflicted during litigation. As a result, an increasing number of general counsels are deciding to make litigation communications part of the response to lawsuits. For example, Corporate Counsel recently reported on the legal dispute between Westwood College, Inc., a for-profit college, and some of its former students who contend that the school violated consumer protection laws. The plaintiffs were allegedly recruited through a Facebook page, Warnings About Westwood, which was started by a law firm in Tampa, Florida. The use of social media to recruit the students and to spread word of the lawsuit led Westwood College’s general counsel, William Ojile, to decide to use litigation communications to protect Westwood’s reputation. The article, which can be read in full here, offered the following explanation for why Ojile decided to use litigation communications:

“The smear tactic and the use of social media have caused us to challenge traditional norms on how you respond to the portrayal of your company when you’re in litigation,” he said. Typically he doesn’t respond in the press when asked about a suit. But in this case he not only discarded the “no comment” approach, he hired a public relations firm to reach out to reporters. “You have to show your faculty and staff and students that you’re not just out there getting pasted,” he explained. The college created a Web site that responded to the allegations and anticipated students’ questions. “How does Westwood battle this? We battle it with transparency,” Ojile said. “Every school has complaints,” he added. “I don’t care if you’re Westwood or Harvard. We try to deal with complaints as they arise.”


  1. I don't understand your point. I read the article you referenced and it clearly shows that the litigation communication blew up in his face. The article makes clear that the plaintiff's lawyer was not soliciting clients, but rather was gathering evidence, which the article details against Ojiile. Further it 'outs' Ojiles defamation suit as having no basis. In fact, it makes him look silly.
    Was that your point?

  2. I agree that the defamation lawsuit against the law firm representing the former students is subject to criticism. However, the lawsuit is a legal tactic, it is not part of a typical litigation communications strategy. The point I was making is that Ojile decided that simply saying "no comment" when asked about the litigation was an insufficient response and would not help Westwood's reputation. Ojile recognized that Westwood's stakeholders; the shareholders, the faculty, the staff, and current and prospective students, needed to know Westwood's side of the story. Therefore, he hired a public relations firm to actively engage the media and present Westwood's point of view, and then created a Web site that stakeholders and the media could visit in order to get information and Westwood's response to the allegations. These actions, more than the defamation lawsuit, are the ones most likely to mitigate any reputational damage caused by the former students' lawsuit.