Crisis Counsel: When Legal and Public Relations Collaborate

When a crisis occurs — due to a product recall; alleged unethical, negligent or criminal behavior; or the loss of life — all hands are on deck, but not necessarily working in harmony. As the legal and communications departments are first responders, they often bring very different approaches, sometimes resulting in an inability to reach consensus and to provide a timely response in the fast-paced world of traditional, digital, mobile and social media channels.

While both departments share a common goal of protecting the organization’s reputation and avoiding costly litigation, collaboration during a crisis still remains challenging. For some communications pros and lawyers, their affiliation often mimics a love-hate relationship.

As PR professionals, we are on a clock that moves at lightning speed, with social media platforms routinely framing the narrative and the optics. When there is little or no concrete information, decisions must be made quickly or else the public narrative might be woefully inaccurate or highly damaging to the organization.

For your legal colleagues, who are more risk-averse, gathering as much information as possible prior to issuing an initial response is the more prudent course of action. In today’s 24/7 global media cycle, and as social media sharing takes less than a second, communications pros and the legal team must significantly improve their collaboration to effectively protect the organization’s reputation and bottom line.

Finding common ground

PR pros and lawyers employ a very similar process when engaged in a crisis. Each gathers and evaluates the available information, performs fact-checking, identifies information gaps, obtains issue-specific data, develops a strategy, briefs C-suite executives, manages external communications, prepares documents, preps executives, monitors traditional and social media, anticipates external factors and manages the crisis through its conclusion.

And yet the processes are often expertly performed in silos and result in incongruent recommendations and strategies provided to the C-suite executives. When this unfortunate situation occurs, the organization suffers, as the executive suite must determine the appropriate response strategy under extreme duress and with heightened emotions. If the communications and legal departments worked collaboratively, they would more efficiently achieve their collective goal of mitigating reputational and financial damage.

So what does it take to forge a sustainable and mutually beneficial strategic partnership between the communications and legal departments? First, recognize that common ground and a strong foundation already exist with your legal colleagues. As trusted advisers to the C-suite and other executives, your relationship should be collegial, not adversarial. Purposefully and consistently building mutual understanding of your respective roles will strengthen the organization’s crisis response protocols.

Providing a fractured, delayed or one-dimensional response is detrimental to the organization’s reputation and potentially increases the legal stakes as the court of public opinion influences perception and can result in higher economic considerations. When agreement is not quickly attainable, it is best to affirm the organization’s values rather than remain silent. Allowing agenda-driven and uninformed external groups to frame the narrative and optics usually proves embarrassing and expensive for the organization.

Creating a narrative that supports the legal strategy while also addressing the general public’s perception is a delicate balancing act, to be sure. But ignoring the public’s perception and its impact on the organization’s reputation despite winning in the courtroom is not necessarily a victory. Reputational damage from negative perceptions can also take a significant financial toll on the organization.

Building a strategic partnership yields many benefits

There are significant advantages for the organization, as well as for the communications and legal departments, when an integrated approach is the first line of defense. Ultimately, a unified approach enables both departments to share their unique perspectives, to leverage their expertise, to develop a comprehensive response strategy and to jointly engage the executive suite in a strategic and proactive manner.

Recognizing that public perception can be helpful or detrimental to the organization’s legal strategy, reputation and bottom line creates a unique incentive for a more collaborative working relationship and enables the communications team to provide significant value as a strategic partner.

As an experienced communications executive, I know firsthand the incredible opportunities afforded by building a strategic partnership with the legal team. Throughout my more than two decades in the public and private sectors, having my expertise requested in legal strategy sessions and receiving advanced access to legal complaints, briefings and filings has presented invaluable opportunities to help the organization successfully navigate crisis situations.

More important, working cohesively with your legal counterparts also enhances the communications department’s reputation and elevates your ability to significantly influence the strategy and outcomes.

Sophisticated and savvy communications executives should build authentic, strategic relationships with their legal counterparts. Employing your well-tuned abilities to effectively frame the narrative, to share a wealth of information regarding the likely perceptions and optics, and to interpret the media angles, opportunities and pitfalls enables you to proactively support the legal strategy in the event litigation occurs in the future.

While the legal and communications departments have very specific responsibilities in a crisis situation, each also greatly benefits when working collaboratively and presenting a unified response strategy.

Creating a Legal System

Whether you’re new to a company or well-established in your role, there is always an opportunity to cultivate a collaborative relationship with your legal colleagues.

  • Make the first move. It is important for PR executives to take the long view and use their powerful communication and relationship-building skills to engage their legal colleagues. Schedule a brief face-to-face meeting to open the dialogue between your departments and to reset the relationship from past issues, if necessary.
  • Understand both the culture and risk tolerance. A company’s culture and the legal department’s risk tolerance are key factors when determining the best approach to building a strategic partnership between the communications and legal departments. This information provides support for your early strategic engagement in future litigation or crisis situations.
  • Become a strategic partner. By helping develop the legal strategy —participating in brainstorming sessions, reviewing early drafts of documents and briefing the C-suite — executives provide important insights on the most likely media narrative and a well-thought-out communications plan that supports it.
  • Debrief to improve future collaborations. Conduct a postmortem as soon as possible following a crisis situation to identify successes and areas for improvement. This purposeful dialogue can inform your ongoing relationship and should be used to improve your working relationship.
  • Periodically touch base. Don’t be a one-hit wonder. Building a strategic relationship with your legal colleagues should be authentic, purposeful and ongoing. Schedule a standing conference call or face-to-face meeting to ensure you are in the loop and actively engaged in new, pending or continuing litigation issues that can impact the organization’s reputation. — R.W.

Published in The Public Relations Strategist, PRSA’s award-winning quarterly magazine is dedicated to executive-level PR professionals.