By Scott Emmerson
Most large companies or organisations will have to deal with a significant crisis at some stage. Whether it’s a sudden disaster, such as the tragedy at Dreamworld, or an emerging and evolving threat – the Hayne Royal Commission is a current example for the financial sector - they will usually engage two key consultants, lawyers and public relations/communications advisors.
The best outcome will be for both to work together to achieve the optimal result for their mutual client. But too often tensions erupt in a turf war which undermines that.
For lawyers there is the goal of limiting legal liability for the company and its directors. They will embrace the tactic of restricting what information is disclosed and therefore limiting liability for the client.
But this narrow legal focus ignores reputational damage. Lawyers will respect the law but ignore the importance of media and public opinion.
While crises demand rapid responses, lawyers will commonly withhold or delay comment. Resorting to stonewalling, and retreating to legal jargon when a statement is eventually issued, will most likely see the client branded defensive, guarded, secretive and implicitly acknowledging guilt.
An eventual legal win may be of little value if a merciless media landscape, riven by unforgiving and unrelenting social media, has already cracked and crushed a client’s public reputation.
On the other hand PR and communication advisors tend to err on the side of saying too much too soon.
With media keen to assign the roles of victims and villains, quickly labelling companies callous, incompetent or careless, the PR advisor may surrender to demands of media and pressure groups and rush out with a statement when not all the facts are known.
Issuing an apology where there is no guilt or wrongdoing will see even the best lawyers struggling to retrieve a PR-inspired train wreck of incorrect contrition.
So how do you harness the respective skill sets of lawyers and PR advisors in a crisis?
1. Plan ahead
Run planning exercises and scenarios to sort out differences and establish key roles and responsibilities, emphasising that legal and PR advisors are part of a team and not rivals.
2. Have an agreed set of steps for handing an erupting or emerging crisis.
It’s important to acknowledge that the lawyers are better equipped than the PR advisors to identify legal risk. They should review but not dictate media statements and other PR actions.
3. Identify the individual who will make the final decision on a strategy – headless chooks are common-place in a crisis.