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Experts weigh in on Pilot Flying J press conferences

11:18 PM, Apr 22, 2013   |    comments
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As details continue to emerge over the FBI's investigation into Pilot Flying J, legal and public relations experts are offering their advice as to how the travel giant should handle the situation.

Monday marked the third time in a week Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam called a press conference at the company's headquarters off Lonas Drive in West Knoxville.

In legal and public relations spheres, Pilot Flying J's actions has been received differently.

Maryville Public Relations Expert Mary Beth West said it was important the company keep an open dialogue with East Tennesseans. So far, West said Haslam has done a good job of accomplishing that task.

"I think that some legal advisers, when they tell their client, 'just don't say anything in fear of saying something too much,' perhaps, it really can prove to be a disservice to a company being able to have some level of communication and being able to safeguard their reputation in some way."

But, Dennis Francis, a legal expert who has no ties to the case, said he was surprised by the amount of times Haslam has addressed the media. He said in that environment it is important for a client to choose his or her words carefully.

Francis added that it is always possible a defendant could learn something he was told was true is in fact false. He said if that person were to go on a witness stand and change their story, a prosecutor would then likely question them about their inconsistent statements.

"We have the Fifth Amendment to the constitution for a reason," he said.

But, Francis pointed out it is important for Haslam to conduct himself with remorse.

"You know, I think everybody is always looking [to see] that you're contrite and that depends on what you knew and how long you knew it," he said.

And, West said she emphasizes honesty above all else.

"At the end of the day, a company has to represent its best faith efforts, to represent its interests, and to just tell the truth and be forthright."

Both Francis and West said they expect Pilot's legal and public relations challenge to continue for some time. However, they both said it was important Pilot attack the situation quickly.

West said she believes it is important to start crisis management before an incident even happens. She went on to say the public's current perception of Pilot could last long after all legal decisions are finalized.

"There's the type of crisis that is over in a matter of hours, or days, maybe a week," she said. "Then there's what is called the 'smoldering crises'. It's the one that's a 'drip, drip, drip' over perhaps a long period of time."

Francis said timing is essential because it gives a defendant time to build a strong foundation.

"I feel like defending any lawsuit, you have got to figure out what your client did or didn't do and what defense, if any, you have to it," he said.

Francis said this could go down as one of the biggest legal cases in Tennessee history because of Pilot's connections to the Cleveland Browns and Governor Bill Haslam. West said in any situation where multiple third parties are involved, it is important a company like Pilot have a real stake in how that situation is managed.

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