For many, preparing a crisis communications plan is similar to writing or updating your will: you know it’s something you need to do, but despite its importance, it always seems to take a backseat to everything labeled urgent that’s screaming for your immediate attention. And so it’s easy to continue to put it off, trusting that good fortune will continue to ensure that you don’t need it.
However, you will not only be much better prepared to handle whatever crisis comes your way when you have a communications plan ready, but it’s important to realize that such a plan can be useful for a much broader range of situations than you might at first imagine.
To that point, note that law firms need to be cognizant of crisis communications on two different levels. While they may need a crisis communications plan for an event that involves a client, they also should have a plan for any type of crisis that directly concerns either the firm or one of its attorneys. And while the definition of “crisis” may seem stretched if we’re talking about how to handle news of a law firm’s layoffs or a discrimination suit against the firm, many of the same approaches and processes should be followed in these types of events as in the more dramatic cases of workplace violence, plant explosions or plane crashes.
What are these all-important approaches and processes? They start and end with the truth. Yes, honesty and transparency head up the rules of thumb in crisis communications, even though candor is sometimes the most difficult thing to come by in a crisis. And lack of candor can hurt a firm’s reputation much more than whatever occurrence has triggered media attention.
One of the highlights of last week’s annual conference of the Legal Marketing Association was the presentation on crisis communications given by Cari Brunelle of Jaffe PR and Eleanor Kerlow of Hunton & Williams. In their presentation entitled, “Managing the Media When Crisis Strikes,” Cari and Eleanor talked about how everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve rides on your – and your firm’s – reputations, and how quickly a solid reputation can be destroyed.
Their list of the non-negotiables in crisis communications included the following:
- Use jargon-free statements that convey the facts
- Prepare a few simple, easy-to-remember messages
- Start with the truth – honesty and candor preserve image and reputation best
- If the facts warrant it, offer negative information in the form of an honest apology
- When you must, it’s okay to say, “We’re still looking into that.”
And what should you not do? Above all, don’t be an ostrich:
- Don’t ignore the media or stay silent, as the media will immediately infer the worst
- Don’t use double-speak or euphemisms
- Don’t dress up statements to “hide the ball”
- And don’t comment beyond the scope of a question or speculate when facts are uncertain
While these guidelines are timeless, what underscores their importance today is the omnipresence (dare I also say “omniscience”?) of social media. And, of course, it doesn’t matter if your firm doesn’t use social media, because enough other people and organizations do that they have changed forever the communications dynamic. The stakes have been raised significantly, no matter what the scale of the event or issue in question.
What are the most important game-changers? I think there are two: 1) Subjects that used to be internal to a firm now have the potential to be external, and globally so; and 2) The viral nature of a hot topic on the web has increased by several orders of magnitude how quickly news travels, and therefore it has similarly compressed the amount of time organizations have before they must publicly react to an event. These two dynamics are closely related, meaning that internal news that used to be shared only with a spouse or a friend later in the day now can circle the world before the mid-morning coffee break, with reporters calling by 10:00 a.m.
Is nothing sacred – or at least confidential? No, not much, especially if members of the team are feeling a bit disgruntled about things at work and feel less kinship with their managing partners than with the great masses of anxious attorneys out in the blogosphere. If this is the case, that “Internal and Confidential” memo of yours just might make it onto the legal news and gossip blog, Above the Law. From what we’ve seen over the last couple years, Above the Law’s impact on law firm communications and culture cannot be overestimated, and it’s not news that Big Law managing partners live in fear of this 800-pound blog.
But Cari made the interesting point that rather than fearing the impact of Above the Law, you should consider working openly and directly with the good people there. She shared a story of a law firm that did just that when it was undergoing layoffs, with the payoff being that the news was reported in respectful and understated fashion by the blog. (Unlike how it reported news of layoffs from firms that first tried to hide the truth behind obfuscations and euphemisms.)
Which brings us back to the golden rules of honesty and transparency. Try them; they work. Not only does being a straight shooter go over well with all forms of the media (and everyone else), but now that the internal is external and the external is global, it’s truly essential to play it straight.
And in times of crisis, your honesty just might save your reputation.