CRISIS PR: Tire crisis starts talk about lawyers and PR - Bridgestone/Firestone's PR VP Christine Karbowiak is a lawyer, and some say that didn't help the crisis. Can PR and the law ever get along?

The fact that Bridgestone/Firestone's VP of public affairs Christine Karbowiak is also an attorney has raised some hackles among crisis communication experts.

The fact that Bridgestone/Firestone's VP of public affairs Christine Karbowiak is also an attorney has raised some hackles among crisis communication experts.

The fact that Bridgestone/Firestone's VP of public affairs Christine Karbowiak is also an attorney has raised some hackles among crisis communication experts.

Karbowiak has never said publicly that her legal training is influencing her PR decisions. And asked early in the crisis if Firestone's legal department was calling the shots when it came to public actions and statements by the company, she answered that all internal points of view were considered in company decision-making.

Still, the fact that she holds a law degree and was Firestone's general counsel from 1997 to 1998, brought an 'I told you so' from some PR people who say lawyers hamper communications efforts in a crisis.



Coming together in crisis

Can PR people and lawyers work together in crises or will they always come into conflict?

'Our problem as a crisis management consultant firm is that we frequently run into lawyers who say 'you can't go public with this,'' says Oliver Schmidt, senior partner with C4CS, a Charlotte, NC crisis management firm.

'A lot of companies are still focusing very much on the legal side.'

Lawyers, after all, are thinking first and foremost about the company's legal liability in a crisis. Admitting any mistakes or apologizing for them can be seen as a handicap when court cases resulting from the crisis start to be heard. Firestone's lawyers have taken media heat for having courts seal information from several early lawsuits over recalled tires.

Lawyers 'are so afraid of possible litigation that they go out of their way to be dull and then wonder why the other side' gets all the media attention in a crisis, says Pete Oppel, managing director with Fairchild/Oppel in Dallas. Oppel says when he's doing crisis counseling, 'I try to get the lawyers to leave the room.' Once he's crafted statements for the company to make, he then has the lawyers return to review them.

Some crisis experts say corporate PR people have to get senior management to think beyond the short-term costs of lawsuits to the long-term public-image damage a crisis can produce. 'You're not just there to please your lawyers. You have to please your other publics, too,' says Schmidt.

Larry Kamer, a principal with GCI Kamer-Singer in San Francisco, agrees.

'There has to be substantial push-back on the attorneys. The public can smell communication that sounds like it was driven by lawyers,' he says.

Lawyers also may want to publicly lay the blame for a crisis elsewhere, notes Kamer, such as Ford charging that the tire recall was Firestone's fault and Firestone countering with an attack on Ford's Explorer SUV and its alleged roll-over problems. But 'when you point the finger, it sounds like you're guilty,' says Kamer.



Surrendering battle axes

Pat Kinney, SVP in the corporate practice with Ogilvy PR Worldwide in New York, agrees that finger pointing doesn't work in a crisis. He thinks Firestone made a major PR blunder in first saying tire problems could have been caused by consumers not properly inflating their tires.

In such cases PR counsel should be advising a company to say that safety and consumer well-being is its primary concern - something Ford said in its ads on the recall. Such a message should not be a problem for lawyers, Kinney says.

Not everyone thinks PR people and lawyers must be constantly at odds.

Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management, says he's worked with clients that have PR people reporting to lawyers, and he's seen them do a good job of communicating in a crisis. 'They shouldn't be in conflict,' he says.

According to Smith, PR people and attorneys need to remember they have the same ultimate goal - to move the company forward and out of its current crisis. 'They've got to work together, and they can. It's not a difficult thing to do,' he says.

Rather than entering a crisis with the attitude that you'll have to battle company lawyers, think of the attorneys as simply another audience to sway. 'The legal community has got to be part of your audience base, but you cannot make that your overriding concern,' says Oppel. 'Lawyers love to tell people 'hunker down and don't say anything.' Unfortunately, in today's society it just doesn't work.'



Communication

Kamer says the answer to PR/attorney cooperation in a crisis starts with good internal communications. 'Crisis managers have to talk to each other,' he says. And, he adds, they should be asking: 'What can we say that puts the needs of consumers first?'

Kinney agrees that the best way for corporate lawyers and PR to work together well in a crisis is to establish good working relationships before an emergency hits. 'There's a way to work together,' he says.

A company's head of PR should establish a rapport with its general counsel, he suggests. PR should show it is sensitive to legal concerns and emphasize that PR can help, rather than harm, a company's legal standing in a crisis.

'More seasoned legal counsel understand that good communicators can put out really effective messages, messages that aren't going to hurt the company,' Kinney says.

Indeed, lawyers who have been through a crisis tend to be more sympathetic to PR concerns the next time a problem rolls around. Some in the auto industry say Ford's proactive communications efforts in the Firestone recall stem from the fact that Ford lawyers and senior managers learned from the PR troubles the company endured in the late 1970s and early 1980s during media coverage of problems with the Ford Pinto. That ordeal taught the automaker valuable lessons about communicating in a crisis, says a source close to the company.

Oppel admits he's worked with lawyers who actually wanted to issue a stronger statement than did the PR people, something he found against the typical nature of lawyers. 'Lawyers just by nature are cautious,' he says.

And on the other side of the lawyer/PR argument, even Kinney admits that conflicts between the two will arise in a crisis. He compares attorneys and PR execs to an angel and a devil sitting on a CEO's shoulders. 'I'm not going to say who I think is the devil and who is the angel,' he jokes.

PR people will likely come to one conclusion, lawyers another





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