There is often inherent tension between lawyers and PR consultants in advising clients, especially in crisis situations. Lawyers are understandably focused on minimizing potential legal liability, which usually requires minimizing communication. PR consultants are focused on improving public opinion, which usually requires maximizing transparency.
But the philosophical and tactical differences between the two sets of advisers are narrowing as institutions of all kinds face more threats, from more sources, coming at them faster, than ever before. The power of social media, the 24-hour news cycle and new forms of citizen activism have fundamentally altered the terms of engagement in an emerging crisis – and lawyers and communicators are increasingly working side-by-side.
This changing dynamic became quite apparent when I joined four accomplished lawyers at a recent panel discussion organized by the Director’s Roundtable, which arranges events for corporate directors and their advisers. The primary purpose of this event was to honor Deloitte Global General Counsel, Susan Yashar, and her law department. She came up with the idea for a panel discussion on, “Managing Your Corporate Reputation in a 24-hour News Cycle.”
As the only non-lawyer on a panel in a roomful of lawyers at the Manhattan offices of Latham & Watkins, I expected to be the cat at a dog show. Instead, I found a surprising degree of common ground with Yashar, our moderator, and the three other panelists – Jonathan Anschell, Executive VP and Deputy General Counsel for CBS; Daniel Laster, former General Counsel at PATH, a global nonprofit that promotes public health; and James Farrell, a Latham & Watkins partner.
Although there were some nuances in our opinions, we found general agreement on three key elements of effective risk and crisis management:
You can run, but you can’t hide. The panelists were united in agreeing that running from the media and ignoring criticism is a bad strategy. The key is knowing when, how and with whom to engage. The right channel and the right tone can help defuse a potential crisis; the wrong move can inflame critics. Demonstrate caring and competence. Respond with facts, not emotions, and avoid being drawn into social media debates. Engaging with the news media always carries some degree of risk, but failure to engage gives critics a free hand to control the media narrative.
Accept the need for speed. The panelist all recognized that delay can be deadly when faced with an impending crisis. There were some cautionary notes on this point, particularly around the harm that can result from releasing incomplete or inaccurate information. But we were aligned on the need to avoid paralysis by analysis when responding to fast-moving events. Gather information as efficiently as possible and establish clear lines of authority to act on that information. To encourage candor, avoid blaming and shaming during the fact-gathering process.
Prepare for the worst. Yashar called her approach to crisis preparation “productive paranoia.” It starts with identifying all known and potential risks that could inflict serious damage on the organization, then preparing response strategies and materials to support tactical execution. Agree on decision-making authority and escalation triggers to ensure that the right people within the organization are informed of potential problems at the right time. Develop an actionable crisis response plan that is available online, not a massive document that will gather dust on a shelf. With technology like H+K’s “Crisis Control” app, a crisis response plan and key contacts can be easily accessible anytime, anywhere.
Of course, we were not in lockstep on every point. Lawyers and communications specialists bring different skills and different perspectives to risk and crisis management. The key takeaway from our discussion in New York – and a lesson I’ve learned through experience, both good and bad – is that lawyers and PR consultants serve their clients best when they work together to develop strategies, tactics and messages that resonate in the court of public opinion as well as a court of law.