CLOSING THE GAP: Providing counsel

PR and legal share common goals, though the methods used to achieve them can give rise to internal conflicts

PR and legal share common goals, though the methods used to achieve them can give rise to internal conflicts

The objectives of an organization's corporate communications and legal departments are very similar. Each group works at presenting facts in a light that is most favorable to their company or client. Yet the strategies the sides employ to achieve that goal often are in conflict. In instances where a company is accused of improprieties, for instance, legal frequently advises the organizations to remain silent to avoid the prospect that a statement would be used against the firm during litigation. But by keeping quiet, a company may appear culpable to the public, regardless of the eventual outcome. "The safest route from the legal perspective is to say little, but that can be injurious from a PR perspective and could damage a company's long-term reputation," says Harlan Loeb, the Chicago-based director of litigation for Hill & Knowlton. "Firms that do little to communicate on issues and their positions feed into the predisposition of people to say that the companies are guilty." But getting corporate communications and legal professionals to agree on strategies often is difficult, especially in environments where the parties have minimal contact with one another until a crisis arises. In such circumstances, the sides have little understanding of the value that each team brings to the mix, or even their main goals, says Jackie Kolek, a partner and senior director at Peppercom. "It is important for the groups to strike a balance and determine what is appropriate for the company to communicate in different situations while not putting the firm at greater risk," Kolek says. "Companies need to be protected from the legal standpoint, yet they also must ensure that they're not letting someone else tell their stories." Remaining silent in the face of criticism can be particularly damaging to a firm's reputation when the general public can relate to the organization's alleged wrongdoing, such as in the case of product liability or financial malfeasance, Loeb notes. "Americans' imagination about a company's guilt usually is worse than anything the firm may have done," he says. A strong corporate response to charges of wrongdoing not only can help protect a company's image, but also is often an effective way to keep regulators - such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Justice - from investigating the organization. Indeed, Loeb notes that because the SEC sometimes uses media-driven stories as the basis for deciding whether to launch a probe, it can be crucial for organizations to publicly respond to charges. "If all the SEC gets is one side's version of an alleged violation, the agency may decide to take a closer look at the situation," he says. "Keeping quiet in the face of aggressive attacks - except in rare criminal cases - usually can lead to problems. The clear articulation of a company's position is always a risk mitigation tool." Risk also is reduced when companies plan their communications strategies in anticipation of a crisis situation. Firms that receive letters from the SEC or Justice Department announcing an investigation of their practices, for instance, should begin planning a response in the event that a lawsuit is eventually filed, Loeb notes. Conflict resolution Strife frequently occurs between legal and PR when the groups are not aware of each other's needs or the value they can contribute to the overall communications effort. "The legal department has a well-understood and articulated set of rules it can use to interpret likely outcomes and calculate risk and exposure - it's called the law," says Tom Martin, SVP and director of corporate relations for ITT Industries, a multi-industry manufacturing and engineering company based in White Plains, NY. "But PR involves public opinion, an area where the rules aren't always as clear. Decisions are frequently based on instinct rather than science, and are not quite as unarguable as an attorney turning to a particular statute and saying, 'This is the rule.'" Some corporate lawyers are also reluctant to follow the advice of communications professionals because the legal department often believes PR is still limited to preparing press releases. There is a lack of awareness that the group can also influence consumers, shareholders, government agencies, and others. "Lawyers are issued an advanced degree and need a license to practice so they are involved with a recognized science," says Kevin Sullivan, an attorney and VP of corporate relations for Northbrook, IL-based Allstate. "Yet they also need to appreciate that there is science at work in PR, and that corporate communications practitioners can affect a favorable outcome with the media." Consistent dialogue between the legal and PR departments is essential if the sides are to understand each other's cultures and responsibilities. And that often results from a corporate environment that supports collaboration, which begins at the CEO level, notes Vince Maffeo, the SVP and general counsel for ITT Industries, who works closely with his colleague Martin. At companies with a more siloed environment, the head of PR should attempt to meet periodically with the firm's general counsel to ensure that each side is kept abreast of the other's projects, and discuss how they could support one another, Maffeo notes. "Legal too often thinks that non-lawyers in the organization will not understand legal issues or be able to contribute to their challenges," Maffeo says. "But that is too parochial a view. Legal needs to understand that others can appreciate their situation, and also assist them in doing their jobs and shaping messages." Staying informed PR personnel also must keep the lawyers abreast of communications issues - even in the absence of major problems - so legal could help mold a cohesive messaging strategy, he says. "The PR and legal departments must be clear that they share the same objectives, and a good relationship between the top communications and legal officers sets the tone for that," Sullivan notes. "They know that achieving success for the organization is more important than protecting their own turf." With a greater understanding of legal's challenges and concerns, PR is better positioned to provide constructive assistance, Sullivan says. But PR must be diplomatic in offering suggestions regarding communications strategies, while always keeping the possible legal implications in mind, he notes. And that could create the need for legal's approval before releasing any information to the media. "PR people need to appreciate that lawyers are very anxious to make sure the messages that go out from the corporation are complete, accurate, and responsible, and legal will sometimes suggest delaying statements in order to achieve those aims," Maffeo adds. "It is important for them to appreciate the lawyers' motivation. But at the same time, legal also must realize that in certain instances they might be required to make some kind of public statements on issues rather than keeping quiet." Working Creating a tight working relationship between the corporate communications and legal functions is crucial if the two groups are to develop messaging strategies that will help solidify a company's reputation and legal standing. Tips for improving the relationship between these two departments include: 1. PR practitioners should take the initiative when it comes to educating the legal department on communications issues. But equally important is for the PR department to understand the legal team's priorities and concerns. Sounds simple, but it's true - the heads of PR and legal should meet regularly, and strive to develop a collegial relationship. "Legal too often thinks that non-lawyers within the organization will not understand legal issues," explains Vince Maffeo, SVP and general counsel at ITT Industries. "But that is too parochial a view." 2. Teams should work together to review possible crisis scenarios - such as a lawsuit against the company, a product recall, or a fire at a facility - and then determine how they would respond. The two departments should consider, for instance, the individual who would act as the company spokesperson, the amount and type of information that will be released to the public and the press, and who will be responsible for talking to employees and their families. 3. Each side needs to understand the logistics of how the departments operate, and not just in a crisis situation. "It is important that each side sees what the other goes through or is thinking as a situation unfolds," notes Peppercom partner and senior director Ted Birkhahn. "The parties then learn how not only to work better during a crisis, but also in everyday activities such as drafting a press release on earnings or responding to the needs of constituents." 4. Legal departments, keen on reducing risk, may object to releasing information to the media. PR professionals should acknowledge those concerns and still draft a statement, and then work to get the lawyers' approval on the material before it goes out to the media, says Kevin Sullivan, VP of corporate communications for Allstate. "Legal often will respond better when they can see the actual language rather than just hearing about the concept of a news release. Presenting a draft of the document also gives legal the opportunity to modify its language, and that may lead to the eventual dissemination of information."

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