By Gina F. Rubel
Special to the Legal
Every year, I attend the Legal Marketing Association International Conference, where more than 1,000 industry professionals converge to share thought leadership, best practices and war stories. One of the programs that I particularly enjoyed was “The Power of Critical Thinking in Communications and Crisis Leadership.”
Joshua M. Peck, senior media relations manager for Duane Morris, and Larry Kamer, president of Kamer Consulting Group, presented a products liability hypothetical. A company’s product is named in the media as having caused a child’s death. In the early stages of the crisis, a junior representative of the company’s public relations agency issues an errant and seemingly insensitive tweet that fuels a firestorm of even more negative publicity. Corporate counsel is contacted for legal assistance. The company has to decide what to do with its PR agency while in the midst of a major media crisis. The media is banging down the literal and virtual doors. Someone has to take charge of the situation. Who should be in charge? In-house counsel? The company CEO? The PR agency on retainer? A new PR agency? Corporate counsel? And once they decide who should take charge, then what should they say? What are the important issues and who are the key stakeholders?
We split into small groups to identify issues and solutions with different audiences in mind. Peck and Kamer engaged the groups in the problem-solving exercise and we reconvened to discuss the approaches presented. What came out of the exercise is that lawyers and public relations practitioners have competing agendas and do not always see eye to eye. We can also become distracted by issues of less immediate import (i.e., the PR agency junior associate’s blunder). What might appear to be a heartfelt apology from the PR perspective may actually be construed as admitting legal liability from corporate counsel’s perspective. In the end, the small groups representing different interests were not all on the same page – a situation that is very common in a crisis, especially when a company does not have a proactive crisis management plan in place.
It is important for lawyers, legal marketers and public relations practitioners to remember that there are two courts in this scenario: the court of law and the court of public opinion. Law firms often receive the first call when a client crisis strikes. Clients fear the worst: litigation, fines and criminal penalties. Kamer and Peck stressed that lawyers need to understand best practices in crisis management, so they can position themselves to advise clients on issues with longer-term implications: those that affect reputation, share value and trust.
Here are a few of the key points (verbatim):
- Law firm chief marketing officers should be the leaders in crisis management – not necessarily law firm management.
- Crisis managers need to know if the work at issue is covered by attorney-client privilege and understand that there is some question as to privilege being extended once a third-party agency is involved.
- A crisis manager needs to know how to speak, multi-task, be credible, stay on point, reassure allies and overcome adversities.
- In a crisis, lawyers instinctively say “no comment,” which makes them look stupid and inept.
- Lead, don’t manage. Have a crisis plan. Remember, people are people.
- Figure out who the best-positioned, unbiased person is to determine what happened as quickly as possible, then immediately investigate the crisis.
- Determine the best spokesperson to speak about a corporate crisis. Be sure the spokesperson can take complex issues and make them simple for the media.
- Establish a decision-making team with five to six members who can move a crisis resolution forward.
- Conduct an analysis to understand the situation, the opportunities, the threats and the key messages.
Essentially, crises present law firms with the opportunity to incorporate their skills for thinking critically and grasping facts quickly, and to demonstrate their knowledge of business practices and ethics. Kamer and Peck said, “That’s why it’s so important that law firms perfect their ability to offer quality crisis management to clients during their ‘worst moments ever.’”
Gina F. Rubel is the owner of Furia Rubel Communications Inc., an integrated marketing and public relations agency with a niche in legal marketing. A former trial attorney, she is the author of Everyday Public Relations for Lawyers. Rubel and her agency have won many awards for legal communications, PR, media relations, website and graphic design, strategic planning, corporate philanthropy and leadership. She maintains a blog, is a contributor to National Law Review, The Legal Intelligencer Blog, AVVO Lawyernomics and The Huffington Post. You can find her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter. For more information, go to www.FuriaRubel.com.