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Don’t Wait for a Crisis to Make a Crisis Communications Plan

In my last column I talked about building reputations by being quoted in the media (proactive media relations). However, when you’re involved in something of interest to the media, it’s not always good news. Reputations can be threatened as well as made by media coverage. Reactive media relations involves the careful management of reputations, whether on behalf of a client, a lawyer, a practice group, or the whole firm.

How often does something occur in a law firm that unleashes the hounds of the media? More often than you might think. I had no trouble recalling ten examples from my own experience since I entered law firm marketing in 1999:

  • Major fraud by a client, implicating senior partners of the law firm
  • Hostile takeover of a client
  • A high-stakes case in the Supreme Court of Canada
  • A partner acting as spokesperson for a plaintiff in a high-profile case
  • A partner implicated in media criticism of a municipal politician
  • Departure of the managing partner
  • Discipline action against a partner
  • Sudden, unexpected death of a partner
  • An error by a junior lawyer in a case that’s making headlines
  • Law firm failures and mergers

Clearly, any law firm, large or small, could face a media onslaught. Media relations should therefore be part of any firm’s crisis planning, along with what to do in the event of a power outage. And the first law of crisis communications planning? Don’t wait for a crisis to make a plan.

In my last column, I said that law firms should have a media relations policy. This policy should spell out who is entitled to speak to the media on behalf of the firm, who manages media relations on behalf of the firm, and how calls from the media are to be handled. Once adopted, the policy should be disseminated throughout the firm and rehearsed, so that anyone involved, however peripherally, knows how to react. It is as important to brief your receptionists as it is to brief your partners! More about this later.

The Spokesperson

Speaking with one voice is essential in high-stakes matters, so the first question is: who should be the spokesperson? That depends on the subject of media interest, which might be a client, a lawyer, a practice group, or the firm.

If a client is the subject of media interest, the client’s lead lawyer might be the spokesperson. If the media are interested in a lawyer, then it depends on the situation whether that lawyer should speak for him/herself. If the lawyer has just won a big case, closed a huge deal, or been given an award, let them go ahead and talk to the media AFTER going through the team process I describe below. If the situation isn’t positive (e.g. accusations of wrongdoing, disciplinary action), then the managing partner or the lawyer’s own legal counsel should be the spokesperson. Those approaches also work for practice groups: leader of the group speaks if they’ve done something praiseworthy, managing partner or their own lawyer if not.

If the matter involves the firm, the managing partner should be the sole spokesperson. For example, when merger rumours are flying, all media calls should be referred to the managing partner, no matter how pally the head of litigation is with the local legal media. If the managing partner is the subject of the media interest, or is otherwise unable to speak on behalf of the firm, then the chair of the firm’s partnership board should be the spokesperson.

The Team

Even though there should be a sole spokesperson, a team is essential for managing reactive media relations. That team should comprise the managing partner, the involved lawyer(s), the marketing director if there is one, and whoever is responsible for risk management in the firm. Some firms use a PR agency or consultant for their media relations; these people should be brought in right from the beginning, ideally before a situation hits the media. There’s nothing worse for a marketing director or consultant than getting a Google Alert at 6:00 am telling you that one of your lawyers is all over the media and you knew nothing about it.

Before anyone responds to the media, the team should think through the implications for the firm, craft key messages (no more than three) and run through the potential interview, no matter how experienced the spokesperson is with the media. The marketing director or consultant must think like a journalist and come up with the worst possible questions the spokesperson might be asked. If the firm is issuing a media release, the spokesperson and the marketing director should be listed as contacts. If the firm is holding a media conference, everyone in the firm needs to understand when, where, why, and what their responsibilities are—even if it’s only to stay out of the main boardroom while the media are there.

More about those receptionists. At crucial times, the people who staff your front desks and your telephones become frontline media relations staff. Even if the matter in question is confidential, they need to know that media will be calling and what the expectations are. Does the spokesperson want to be called out of meetings to take media calls? Who takes the call when the spokesperson is unavailable? How do they deal with media arriving at the reception desk unannounced? (Yes, it happens. If you have a well-rehearsed plan, your receptionist will know what to do.)

The Timeline

Today, there’s no waiting until tomorrow to see the headlines. The news is online immediately, minutes after an announcement or media conference. I was once involved in a media conference at a law firm that attracted 32 media outlets. By the time I got back to my desk after having seen the last journalists off the premises, the first report was online. Indeed, the competition to be first with the news is so intense, it leads to many mistakes, so it’s even more important to ensure that your spokesperson is giving the right message.

The Last Word

Finally, it’s crucial to remember that you don’t have the last word when dealing with the media. The old saying ‘Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel and newsprint buy the ton’ still has wisdom, even if it can be rewritten as ‘Never pick a fight with someone who has more Twitter followers than you’.

Above all, think about your firm’s reputation before anyone answers a media call. There are always implications for the firm—good, bad, or indifferent. The goal of media relations, whether reactive or proactive, is to enhance or preserve the firm’s reputation wherever possible.

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