Crisis can create shared opportunity for PR and legal teams

This week I participated in a productive conference call about a client's crisis strategy that included a thoughtful risk-benefit discussion about potential legal, communications, and political strategies.

This week I participated in a productive conference call about a client's crisis strategy that included a thoughtful risk-benefit discussion about potential legal, communications, and political strategies.

A group of lawyers led the discussion. It was actually their idea. Surprised?

In these blogs I've been trying to debunk some of the conventional wisdom about crisis management, and nothing is more "debunk-able" than the myth that lawyers live to frustrate the good ideas of communicators.  

Yes, it is frustrating when a seemingly tone-deaf attorney exerts too much sway in the heat of a crisis. The blind pursuit of “protecting legal options” can actually make the situation worse. It's very hard to reverse a perception that a company is hiding behind legal technicalities when it should be taking responsibility, fixing the problem, and ensuring it never happens again.

But lawyers often prevail with CEOs because they have a very compelling reason to call the shots: they position their work as mitigating huge and tangible risks, avoiding fines, and keeping executives out of jail. PR people argue about reputation, brand, and stakeholders. In a smackdown before a worried CEO, it's no wonder the lawyers win.

It's important to avoid this either/or dynamic, and ideally that happens beforehand. Crisis response should be an extension of crisis planning. If attorneys and communicators aren't working as equals beforehand, there's less likelihood they'll do so in the crisis. Since communicators often drive crisis planning, it becomes incumbent on us to reach out and include the legal team from the start.

When it works well, the attorney-communicator relationship can be massively positive for the client. In those cases, lawyers are intimately involved with crafting communications, and crisis communicators shape the litigation and legal strategy. This happens when each group well understands that the other deals with risks and percentages, just like them.

Larry Kamer is public affairs practice leader and MD at The Glover Park Group.

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