Taking advantage of a media circus

When a high-profile television presenter makes an age-discrimination claim against the BBC you can be sure there’ll be a frenzy of media attention.

That’s exactly what happened in the case of Miriam O’Reilly, one of the former hosts of the TV show, Countryfile. O’Reilly lost her job when Countryfile was moved to a primetime slot and the BBC decided to freshen things up. She was replaced by younger presenters.

O’Reilly took the case to an employment tribunal and, as was widely reported, she won her claim of age discrimination and victimisation. It was an important story and understandably attracted the attention of all the main news outlets including newspapers, radio and TV.

It was a tremendous boost for O’Reilly who, ironically, found herself in front of the BBC cameras again as she told her side of the story for TV news. She wasn’t the only winner, however.

Behind the scenes, the tribunal victory was also great news for the law firm that represented her: Leigh Day & Co. For as O’Reilly spoke for the TV cameras, the background behind her showed ‘Leigh Day’ written out several times on a large board.

This was on primetime TV news being shown to millions of people all across the country. It was priceless publicity, and I mean ‘priceless’ quite literally because you couldn’t buy that kind of publicity at any price. You could go to the BBC or any TV news programme and offer them millions to show your logo in that way and they would turn you down.

How ironic, then, that Leigh Day was able to get that kind of exposure for free.

The reason the media went along with it of course was because of the strength of the story, and in the end they had no choice. They wanted to interview O’Reilly, and that meant doing so in front of the Leigh Day logos.

That didn’t happen by accident, however. It would have been very easy for a law firm to miss out on the publicity because it failed to realise its potential. I regret to say that this happens to law firms all the time. Thankfully not in this case, because it seems Leigh Day handled it properly.

I wasn’t involved in this case, but as a TV journalist I attended hundreds of press conferences and can see how the media circus was handled. Leigh Day obviously knew it was involved in a major story and that the media would want to interview O’Reilly as soon as the tribunal decision was announced.

At that point, the firm could have simply given out O’Reilly’s contact details and let the media get on with it. But then the interviews would have taken place at her home or in a TV studio and there would be no exposure for the Leigh Day logo. Also, it would not be very supportive from a client-care point of view to leave O’Reilly to fend for herself.

Leigh Day obviously took a more proactive approach. It issued a press release in advance, telling the media when the tribunal decision would be announced. The press release was on its website and gave details of where and when O’Reilly would be available at a press conference to give her reaction to the decision and answer questions.

This was good for her because she was able to deal with all the media at the same time, and it was good for the media for much the same reasons – they got their interviews in a well-ordered manner without having to chase around trying to locate O’Reilly.

Leigh Day was rewarded with publicity that spread across the whole media spectrum.

Of course, such high-profile cases don’t come along every day, but if you did find yourself in the middle of a media circus, are you confident you would know how to handle it? It would be a shame not to make the most of it.

First published in the Law Gazette in 2011