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In times of crisis, the ‘tug of war’ is over

Press conference

Conventional wisdom used to go something like this: Lawyers and communicators are trained differently and, consequently, see the world differently, especially during a crisis or any other time of adversity. Attorneys want their clients to say as little as possible, while PR people want to communicate as much as possible.

This accepted fact of business life sustained for decades, with executives often getting caught in a tug of war between their advisors, typically won by the lawyers with the communicators generally pleased to walk away with any sort of moral victory. “We did the best we could” was often the rallying cry rather than “we did the best for our client.” Executives felt torn between the fear of losing big money in litigation while losing incalculably when it comes to reputation.

But here we are in a much different era, for business and communications, and trends point in  a direction that lawyers should notice and embrace. That piece of conventional wisdom does not apply nearly as often. The tug of war is essentially over. Legal and communications professionals are collaborating more often and more effectively than ever. Neither won. Both sides dropped the rope and clients are benefiting.

Whether you are a lawyer or a communicator, you have to agree that the defense counsel’s crutch comment in times of adversity “the case is without merit and we will defend it vigorously” just does not work. Clearly, the even worse “no comment” helps nobody. There is a more common understanding now that an actual communications strategy, complete with language that articulates and advances the client’s point of view, is vital to business continuity. It takes attorneys and communicators working together to ensure the proper balance of legal protection and message proactivity.

We all notice, more now than ever, that irreversible changes to society and business have prompted changes in approach. From this vantage point, more lawyers than ever recognize those changes and want communications counsel on the same team to determine strategies that support the legal gameplan. These changes include:

Social media: Audiences expect, and often demand, fast, authentic information from organizations of all sizes and types

Web-based news: No longer is “bad publicity” contained to a local area. Now, news spreads fast and remains searchable, if not permanent, online. Attorneys are realizing what PR pros have long known — news coverage without a client voice leaves a gaping void for adversaries, critics or the public to fill.

Internal communications: In a tight labor market, with a “war for talent,” organizations realize that high-profile matters must be communicated well on the inside to minimize reputational damage on the outside.

For years, I used to write for outlets like this about the differences between “the courtroom versus the newsroom” but there is now a much greater understanding that there are more than just two domains of influence in times of crisis. Often, the courtroom is inevitable and there are ways in which multiple points of view, ranging from media to government to customers to employees, can be addressed simultaneously, for the benefit of the client’s long-term and short term reputational needs.

What used to be something of an arranged marriage between attorneys and communicators has now become, more often, a partnership. Years ago, most often, we were brought in by concerned executives or by in-house communicators who recognized the limits of their experiences. Reactions from attorneys varied. Now, we are more often brought into situations, often even in preparation for a crisis, rather than just reaction, by lawyers themselves, as part of their multi-disciplinary teams.

First-hand examples of recent crisis situations where attorneys have taken the lead in bringing in PR counsel include:

The general counsel of a large organization ensuring outside communications counsel joined the GC in advising a board of directors on quickly and completely informing internal and external audiences immediately after its decision to remove its CEO for cause

Outside legal counsel for a high-profile nonprofit organization engaged specialized PR counsel to advise on how to communicate a public effort by former employees of the organization to generate public pressure designed to motivate the organization’s leader to resign

Attorneys for a property owner where oil leaked into a body of water engaged a public relations professional to help explain what happened to nearby property owners and media

A law firm investigating alleged employee impropriety inside a business encouraged the business owner to retain crisis PR counsel to manage the communication surrounding the investigation

Counsel for a party potentially targeted in the investigation into a fire at a famous building brought a communications strategist into the planning, in case public attention turned to its client.

Like any good relationship, this should be a two-way street. We have found ourselves saying to ongoing clients more often when asked for messaging advice during adversity, “we should involve your legal counsel in this conversation.” Truly, that is in everyone’s best interest. More often now, the attorney’s goal becomes the primary motivation: win the case, settle the case, minimize risk, whatever it may be, but with communications supporting the legal strategy.

You cannot completely plan for a client crisis but you should prepare. You can adjust your mindset to ensure that when something happens, or better yet, when something is about to happen, you are prepared to act. If you follow the trend, that will be with more than just legal advice.

The old lawyer’s mantra, stereotypical or not, of “say nothing” has been replaced by “say the right things.” To do that, it takes collaboration, commitment and most of all, trust. Now, in the best interest of the client, it takes a team, legal and otherwise to earn the shared successes that benefit all of us and most of all, the clients.

Matt Friedman is co-founder of Tanner Friedman Strategic Communications, a Michigan-based public relations firm, for 25 years has served as a frequent communications advisor to legal counsel, senior executives and boards of directors during times of crisis, litigation and change. He is an inductee into the Public Relations Society of America (Detroit Chapter) Hall of Fame.