"When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, I . . . " gather together my crisis management team and proactively deal with the media even though I'd like to crawl under a rock. This is the nutshell version of advice that emerged from a recent discussion with a colleague, Robin Cohn, president of a public relations and crisis management firm in New York City. Robin knows crisis: Since handling the Air Florida Flight 90 crash in Washington, D.C., she's become a recognized authority on the subject. We frequently work together.
Considering the list of potentially negative events that might emerge in a law firm's life and be seized upon by the media -- partners leaving, rumors of a firm's demise, disgruntled employees filing lawsuits, an adverse decision for a highly public client, among others -- it's worthwhile to summarize the discussion I had with Robin a few days ago.
Q: Robin, what are the areas a law firm should watch for emerging crises?
A: There are two areas of concern: firm issues, such as loss of key partners, client defections and disgruntled employees. And then there are client issues -- literally an endless list of anything negative that could happen to a client, such as litigation, transgressing environmental regulations, bankruptcy, some sort of government enforcement, and trademark infringement. But the key point is that when adverse things happen, it is far more productive to manage, not avoid, dealing with the media. Particularly for client issues, the firm's handling and managing the media has a lot of pluses for the firm/client relationship. It is a value-add to the relationship and protects the attorney-client privilege. If the firm's response is to avoid the media, then there'll probably be the most negative spin. Not good for the client relationship.
Q: What would you tell a firm to do to organize a crisis management strategy?
A: First, do your homework. A firm has to consider that any sensitive event may have a negative underbelly that would make for a "good" story. Being prepared means designating a crisis management team -- the senior attorney and someone else who is very available -- who are aptly prepared to talk to the media because they have brainstormed as many negative scenarios as possible beforehand. This team approach brings in multiple perspectives, which is best, and obviates the media publishing a story with no response from the firm to set the issues straight or at least practice some damage control. That's like going to trial with no defense strategy. The approach the team should take is literally like a summation at a jury trial, which means putting the evidence in the best light possible. It has to appear credible and candid. The media can't really provide full coverage without hearing your side. The firm has to find the positive slant, including a fair representation of the facts.
Q: So a firm sees this black cloud of negative PR on the horizon. What does it do?
A: It bites the bullet, takes a problem-solving approach, and calls the media first. That's right, it initiates the call to the media. The spokesperson for the firm wants to communicate the best possible reading of the facts (and the media may not know them all) and point out how the firm is moving forward.
Q: Where's the client in this equation?
A: Let me back up a little. The attorney has to plan the crisis management strategy with the client beforehand. This is critical. It keeps everyone informed, it ensures everyone is singing the same tune in presenting a unified face to the media, and it shifts the focus to the law firm, where it should be. In many cases, even though a corporate client may have a public relations department, it is not as well prepared to discuss the facts and the law as its lawyer or firm. The client has never done a summation to a jury, and the media is the jury of public opinion.
Q: What are the most overlooked areas in crisis management?
A: There are some real fine points here, Chris, that if overlooked will cause great damage for even the most media-savvy firms. They seem obvious, but they can be easily forgotten in a maelstrom. First and foremost, the law firm has to communicate with its own employees -- both the professional and nonprofessional staff -- about what is happening, the firm's strategy and message. Remember, the employee buzz can be its own media outlet. Also, since some negative events can call a firm's future into question, you don't want to create a secondary crisis, such as giving bent to a rumor that "law firm X not only has a client in crisis, but now who knows if it will weather the storm intact." Second, the firm should let its other clients know what is going on and communicate clearly what the firm's strategy is. An uninvolved client who reads or hears negative stories without the law firm's input, will wonder, "What if this were me? Is this the best my law firm can do?" Then the law firm has potential defections to deal with in addition to the media. The last fine point here is communication with the client. The client should be a partner every step of the way: scenario planning, being advised before the firm talks with the media, and appropriately trained in directing the media to the law firm when it is contacted.
Q: Let's do our own negative scenario, Robin. Suppose the media can't reach the firm's spokespersons. The press publish the most negative slant -- the firm was unresponsive, its strategy was conceived in a fit of mental depravity, the client is a blackguard. What now?
A: The firm contacts the media, the first step in rebuilding its credibility. It welcomes the media's questions and presents its story -- all the things that should have happened in the best of circumstances. By taking the lead now, the firm regains its leverage. But this is not the end of the story. If I were in the firm's shoes, I would continue to follow up with the media. Keep them informed of the subsequent events, let them know what is being done to remedy the situation, always the facts presents in the best light, and tell them what else will happen that can be divulged. It is vitally important that the most-senior person be the spokesperson when there's been a seriously negative media bash. The firm should, though, think preventatively. If you know, for instance, that your high-profile client will be indicted, take the lead. Call the press first before they catch wind and take control.
Q: Robin, is there any up side to the crisis management story?
A: Yes, and a quite clear one. Research has shown that when you solve a problem for clients, their loyalty to you is much increased, no matter what the result. While we've been talking about very difficult circumstances and events, the handling and managing of such events is, in itself, a confidence and loyalty builder. The only down side is when the law firm does not manage the event. I've seen many firms just stonewall the media. Although they believe it's the best course, ultimately clients come to realize that it was a flawed strategy -- after all, they are left with the detritus, and it's heavy baggage.
This article has been reprinted with permission from New Jersey Lawyer, July 14, 1997.