When disaster strikes, should you call your lawyer or your PR?

Whether it is pre-crisis planning and preparation, real time crisis management or post crisis recovery, the direction given to the managers of a company by advisers, legal and non-legal, is a key plank in helping a board make good choices for their shareholders.

When the crisis happens, who are you going to call - lawyers or PRs? asks Andrew Day
When the crisis happens, who are you going to call - lawyers or PRs? asks Andrew Day

There is a crucial balance between limiting legal liability for the company and its directors and managing the company’s resilience in an unforgiving media environment.

Most companies jump on the phone to their lawyer when negative information gets out into the public’s hands - a recent example of this is the handling of the Sports Direct zero-hours contract and pay scandal.

This tactic is to ensure that limited information is disclosed and that the liability of the lawyer’s client is kept to a minimum – but is this the right way to handle a crisis?

Although the lawyer’s job is to protect its client first and foremost, the public and the media need to be handled very carefully - stonewalling can be seen as defensive and guarded, this can send out the wrong unspoken message to the public allowing them to form a judgement without knowing the facts.

Additionally, legal jargon can be seen as abstract or, even worse, a way of deflecting attention.

A different strategy used by some companies is to have their PR pro jump to the front line to issue a statement to the public – an example being how TalkTalk handled its hacking scandal.

There are inherent risks with this approach - the legal and reputational implications of saying too much too soon or issuing an apology where there is no guilt could damage a reputation before all the facts are known even to the company in crisis.

It doesn’t matter how good the lawyers are in this situation, the damage is already done and can be of catastrophic magnitude.

What’s the answer?

Too often lawyers and PRs see their role in crisis management in a territorial, even adversarial, way.

The balance to be struck is in having the lawyers and the PR personnel work in cohesion to create an integrated crisis communication plan to a set of agreed steps for handling a brewing or real-time crisis.

Getting lawyers around the table with PRs and running a scenario planning exercise allows for open discussion and the ironing out of any differences before those differences surface during a crisis when the company most needs a simple plan to execute.

The approach that c-suite decision makers should take is to combine the strengths of both advisers to make good management choices pre and post crisis to protect the company from all angles of exposure.

This is far more effective if the company treats these advisers as part of their team, tweaking and adjusting strategy in line with the managements agreed risk profile.

There should be no reason why both lawyers and PRs cannot focus on providing planning solutions together.

Andrew Day is a partner Spring Law

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