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Head to Head: Following a crisis, should you call the lawyers first?

In this series, Mumbrella invites the industry's senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues. This week, Luis M Garcia, senior director at Cannings Strategic Communications, goes head to head with Daylight Agency's David Begg on whether or not you should call the lawyers first after a crisis.

Many businesses can find it confusing when deciding who to call first after a crisis hits. Luis M Garcia argues the lawyers should always be rung, because they often have a longer-term perspective.

Begg says that although both the lawyers and communicators are an essential element in a crisis, the ideal situation is one where the two work hand-in-hand.

Yes, argues Luis M Garcia, senior director, Cannings Strategic Communications:

When a crisis hits, who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? Not quite. Normally, it’s a choice between calling the expensive lawyers you always hoped you would never need – or ring the not quite as expensive crisis communications consultants you always thought exaggerated the risks to your business.

Here is a novel approach: it shouldn’t be a choice. I say call them both. At the same time.

For those of us who make a living from helping organisations protect or rebuild their reputation at critical times, nothing strikes as much despair in our cold hearts than being told the lawyers are on their way.

Garcia says call them both simultaneously

I am sure it’s not too different for lawyers when told the PR guys are in the house.

But it shouldn’t be that way. Sure, lawyers can seem obstructive and too legalistic in their approach to a crisis, normally recommending that organisations sit tight and do nothing until all the facts have been gathered and analysed.

In most cases, organisations in the middle of a firestorm do not have that luxury, but I say let’s cut the legal team some slack. Theirs is a longer term perspective, where the threat of legal action (class action!), could have a serious impact on the bottom line, if not the survival of an organisation. This means they should be in the room from the very beginning, assessing the legal implications of the crisis, especially if it involves regulators.

So, by all means call the crisis communications consultants when the proverbial hits the fan, but make sure the lawyers are also there to help guide your response.

And if they can’t work together, fire them both.”

No, argues David Begg, general manager, government, Daylight Agency:

“As we all know, life is not ‘black or white’. Much of it is lived in the ‘grey areas’ in between. And so it is when it comes to considering the role of the legal team versus the communication team in a crisis.

There is no doubt both lawyer and communicator play an integral role in guiding an organisation through a crisis, but trying to evaluate the value of one over the other is problematic, as both are critical. Indeed the ideal situation is when both are working hand-in-hand.

Begg says “a wider range of scenarios need to be addressed beyond simply the legal repercussions”

An organisation usually experiences greater reputational damage as a result of the way it manages a crisis, not because of the crisis itself. In fact research shows brands which manage a crisis well gain an average 10-15 percent stock price jump, while those that manage it poorly lose an average 15-20 percent. That’s up to a 35 percent differential.

In today’s 24/7 news environment, an organisation’s brand can be trashed in a heartbeat if it does not respond appropriately when the crisis breaks, even if it eventually goes on to win in court.

With this in mind, I have always favoured an approach where the communicators (be they in-house or external) provide the steer on how a crisis should be approached. After all, they are best placed to know the range of stakeholders that should be engaged during a crisis, the channels that can be best deployed and the messaging that will be most appropriate.

In most cases, this team will also have already put the organisation through crisis planning and pressure-tested its ability to respond to a crisis.

While the lawyers will need to be closely involved in the crisis management process and provide counsel around the legal issues at hand, a wider range of scenarios need to be addressed beyond simply the legal repercussions. The worst advice a legal team can provide is to suggest a company close down its communication for fear of litigation, bunker down and ride the situation out.

A crisis must be looked upon as an opportunity to show the human face of the brand. Responding quickly, acting with integrity, displaying empathy and updating stakeholders regularly are the key ingredients to gaining control and minimising damage. And this can all be achieved successfully while also taking into account any/all of the legal matters relevant to the situation.

It has been proven time and again that winning the battle in the court of public opinion always outweighs winning the battle in the court of law.”

  • As told to Abigail Dawson. If you’re a senior PR professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head, please email abigail@mumbrella.com.au
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