This article was originally published by Bloomberg BNA’s Big Law Business
A big part of any lawyer’s job is to guide clients through crises, serving as the voice of reason and rational thought amidst tumult. But the calm and confidence can disappear quickly when a crisis strikes their own firm or practice.
In ten years serving as the primary public relations counsel to some of the country’s largest law firms, we have learned to recognize the urgency, sometimes verging on panic, in our clients’ voices when a crisis looms. No two crises are ever the same, but our experience has taught us to follow a handful of general principles in guiding our clients through dark days. The guiding standard should be what we call the 90/10 rule, which holds that successful crisis navigation is 90 percent preparation and 10 percent execution.
A crisis preparedness plan should contain the following elements:
- Crisis response team. To save time and limit confusion, the team should have one leader, known firm-wide as the first call to make in a pending crisis. The team should be representative of key functions within the firm – internal legal, external communications, internal communications and marketing — and each member must have clearly defined responsibilities and expectations. The team should contain an executive sponsor from firm leadership.
- Decision tree and likely scenarios. Because it’s vital to know when to involve firm leadership, it can be helpful to create a hierarchy – we typically recommend three levels. Level 1 crises do not threaten the firm’s overall reputation and can be handled by the crisis team with limited support from leadership. Level 2 crises could endanger the firm’s reputation and should involve some level of attention from leadership. Level 3 crises threaten severe, permanent reputational or operational damage. They require detailed leadership involvement. Examples of each level should be thought through as part of the crisis team’s scenario planning.
- Trusted outside counselors: A firm should have key outside advisors — legal, financial, public relations, etc. — on call to assist and strategize as situations dictate. The more familiarity an outside advisor has with the firm’s inner workings, the more valuable the advice. Large firms should consider multiple advisor relationships in each category in case of conflicts.
- Training and role-playing: Practice makes perfect. If firm leadership doesn’t have experience with the media or in crisis situations, drills and media training sessions are invaluable for driving home the critical steps and the resulting responsibilities.
Now imagine that a situation occurs. The crisis team springs into action. Here’s how:
- Determine whether it actually is a crisis. Not every difficult situation is a crisis. The crisis team should gauge near and longer term reputational impact before they act.
- Gather the facts. In most crises, time is of the essence, but the first step has to be gaining an understanding of exactly what is happening. If necessary, consider an initial statement saying only that you are investigating and will have a more detailed statement once you ascertain the facts.
- Speak only to the facts. As in court, speculation and predictions can get you into trouble.
- Develop messages. Common messages include some form of denial or an acceptance of responsibility followed by concise and actionable steps. In his book on Image Restoration Theory, William Benoit wrote, “[t]he important point is not whether the business is in fact responsible for the offensive act, but whether the firm is thought to be responsible.”
- Choose the spokesperson wisely. Senior leadership should only be used in the most pressing circumstances, as their presence will draw attention and highlight the seriousness of the matter.
- Communicate internally. This is where firms most often fail. Partners and staff across the firm may receive questions from clients. The risk of misinformation is high if the crisis team does not arm internal constituencies with facts and talking points.
- Leverage the gaps. Most crisis communication revolves around events. However, smart firms can use the quiet time in between to advance their side of the story.
- Assess the situation and adapt the strategy. Crises are unpredictable. It is critical to continuously evaluate the circumstances and modify the course of action as needed.
Larry has spent more than 20 years building a successful and impressive career in public relations.
A recreational golfer and runner, he also enjoys being active in the industry and his community. He is currently the president of Chicago chapter of the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI) and has previously served as a commissioner on the Historic Preservation Commission of Naperville, Ill.