Should 'sin' industries be switching comms specialists for lawyers to minimise risk?

A trend is emerging in which alcohol and tobacco firms are replacing comms specialists with lawyers to negotiate the regulatory landscape, but is this the right move?

Booze is sinful but so is leaving a gap in your comms armoury, some argue
Booze is sinful but so is leaving a gap in your comms armoury, some argue
News emerged this week that the drinks company SABMiller was to replace its corporate affairs director with a lawyer in a wide-ranging shake-up of the business.

Some point to this as part of an emerging trend in the highly regulated alcohol, cigarettes and gambling industries for companies with a lot to lose to minimise risk by hiring lawyers to negotiate the regulatory landscape.

But is passing over relationship-builders with strong comms skills the most effective route for the so-called ‘sin industries’ to take?

Chris McLaughlin, senior vice-president external affairs and marketing comms at Inmarsat and former corporate affairs manager for the tobacco firm Phillip Morris, says he has spotted the trend.

"It’s the way things have been evolving... ever more lawyers looking for wider roles, drifting into corporate comms through the regulatory route, because ever more companies are sucked into responding to regulatory barriers and challenges," he tells PRWeek.

Laura Swire, a director at corporate and public affairs agency Hanover, says there is an ongoing rivalry between corporate affairs and legal specialists for one of the top places on the executive board.

She says: "The drinks industry has tended towards the regulatory side of things but it could be just cyclical – you put a lawyer in the top spot and then address what needs to be done on branding and comms. The benefits are that lawyers are very focused on the impact of politics and policy on the bottom line."

But lawyers, McLaughlin argues, are not always best suited for a role that requires a comms background.
He says: "Ultimately anyone selling a risky product such as tobacco or alcohol is already in regulatory hell. However, most lawyers have no feel for communication, so companies end up lacking empathy. Lawyers like talking to lawyers."

Swire thinks the challenge for a lawyer in a corporate affairs role is to think beyond their legal expertise, especially in sectors that impact on incendiary issues of public health.

"The challenges are that they have to stay on top of the relationship-building side of political comms and corporate affairs," she says. "If they don’t have a sophisticated understanding of what the policy drivers are, that can be difficult."

Some lawyers agree that they will have to adapt in order to be effective in a corporate affairs role.

John Kelly, a lawyer for Harbottle and Lewis in the field of reputation management, says: "The difficult thing for lawyers is not approaching a problem like a lawyer. Lawyers need to be able to listen and the biggest challenge is to realise what their skills are and understand what they don’t know."

Kelly warns that, if the trend is cemented to replace comms specialists with lawyers in highly regulated sectors, a homogenous response to doing business will emerge and this is not to the benefit of anyone.

"Lawyers see the world in a particular way and corporate affairs people look at it from a different angle," he says. "If a company is only able to pick one person for this role, I would say that they should pick the best person for the job, which may be a lawyer or someone else."

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