September 28, 2022
5 Reasons to Engage PR Counsel at the Executive Committee Level
Moments after the Supreme Court announced its landmark Dobbs v. Jackson decision, Ropes & Gray’s chairwoman Julie Jones released a heartfelt statement. In it, she shared her personal and professional reaction to the seismic shift the decision represents.
Jones acknowledged the differences of opinion her internal stakeholders held on the decision while openly articulating her dismay regarding the reversal of Roe v. Wade. She also made her firm’s position clear, saying, “There will be many opportunities for those interested to contribute on a pro bono basis to the protection of health care rights for women, a cause which Ropes & Gray will continue to champion.”
Jones’ full statement is powerful and authoritative. But from a PR perspective, it’s not so much what she said that’s particularly noteworthy. It’s the fact that she was poised to respond in a meaningful way that sets her apart from the majority of her peers.
More than ever, the professional service firm’s executive committee is called upon to make decisions regarding issues that don’t directly impact their business, or participate in narratives that have not required their participation in the past. Many of these issues and narratives are fraught with emotional risk for certain stakeholder groups, requiring abundant empathy and a strong understanding of their audience. For these reasons, executive committees should consider engaging directly with a PR firm that can provide objective guidance in this new landscape. Here are five ways engaging a strong PR resource can help an executive committee navigate the special situations that are heading its way with greater frequency.
1. Know When and How to Speak Out on Social Issues
We’ve said it before. In today’s world, social concerns are business concerns. And that means your firm can’t afford to sidestep the hot-button topics your audience cares about.
That doesn’t mean you need to speak out about everything that’s happening in the world. But it does mean you should carefully examine your values and develop unique points of view on the issues that matter most to your firm and your stakeholders.
For Julie Jones, that meant crafting a statement about Dobbs even before the decision was final. For other firms, it might mean developing positions of authority about tax reform, ESG principles, or climate change.
Whatever the case may be, a good PR firm can help your executive committee anticipate what’s approaching on the horizon. That way you won’t be left scrambling to respond after another firm has beat you to the punch.
2. Protect Your Firm’s Reputation in Times of Crisis
It can be difficult for any leader, no matter how experienced, to know the best way to handle a crisis. That’s especially true if the crisis in question poses a threat to the firm’s reputation.
Some accept an unwarranted ding to their firm’s public image for fear of making the situation worse. Others try to curtail the damage by minimizing or downplaying their firm’s wrongdoing or missteps. Neither end of this spectrum demonstrates the authenticity and vulnerability that a difficult PR scenario requires.
That’s why PR counsel is so important in the heat of the moment. We advise clients on how to respond to difficult situations with empathy for their audience. Keeping your audience’s concerns, questions, and needs at the forefront of your crisis communication plan is the crucial first step toward moving beyond the eye of the storm.
3. Communicate Effectively During Leadership Transitions
Executive transitions — particularly at the most senior level — are news events that are certain to attract the public’s attention. As such, it’s critically important to communicate clearly with clients, stakeholders, and the public before, during, and after key executive changes.
But many executive committees don’t take time to plan for transitions before they happen. And without clear succession plans in place and solid communication plans to back them up, executive committees can miss valuable opportunities to properly leverage the moment when the time comes to announce a transition.
Working with a PR firm before leadership transitions are even on the table enables your executive committee to:
- Craft compelling institutional narratives about where the firm has been and where it’s headed in the future.
- Define and articulate your firm’s unique value proposition, which can become the common thread that connects an outgoing leader to an incoming one.
- Capture and preserve the institutional memory and knowledge of key leaders before they depart.
Successful leadership changes are carefully planned and expertly communicated. And the best way to ensure your firm experiences a seamless transition is to consider how your audience will view the relationship between the past and the future well in advance.
4. Make Informed Decisions About Client Representation
Your executive committee should engage in healthy debate regarding which clients to represent and which to pass over. That’s particularly vital in the age of cancel culture. It’s become increasingly common for individuals and community advocacy groups to access client lists and pressure firms to reconsider their affiliation with controversial individuals or businesses.
A PR partner can help executive committees consider questions like:
- Will representing this client contradict — and therefore undermine — our stated values?
- Is this engagement likely to invite threats to our reputation? And if so, are the short-term gains worth the risk?
By engaging a PR firm to help you consider these and other questions, your executive committee can shape a smarter, more strategic process around client selection.
5. Communicate Transparently, Especially With Internal Stakeholders
Two decades ago, the Sarbanes Oxley Act was passed to increase transparency related to corporate governance practices. As a result, corporate boards sought out PR representation to help them manage accurate, transparent disclosures that their public shareholders and other stakeholders could understand and accept.
Executive committees at professional services firms should take a page from this playbook as they develop internal communication strategies.
Why? During the pandemic, your employees became accustomed to receiving frequent, transparent, and open communications. They felt they were kept in the loop about rapidly changing scenarios and circumstances. They saw a different side of executive leaders when children, pets, and spouses made unexpected cameo experiences during even the most important meetings and calls. And they continue to crave — and yes, expect — transparency about the decisions you make on behalf of the firm.
A good PR firm knows how to help leaders demonstrate transparency, openness, and authenticity when communicating to (and eliciting feedback from) their employees.
Don’t Neglect Your Executive Committee’s Unique PR Needs
The executive committee is responsible for stewarding the firm’s wellbeing while simultaneously charting its course for the future. This important work shouldn’t be done in a vacuum, or an echo chamber. A strong PR resource can provide insight into the audience that is necessary to craft a thoughtful and authentic response to any number of newly urgent and risky issues.
Of course, the best time to engage a PR firm is before you need one. So even if the skies are currently clear at your firm, let’s talk.