by Merry Neitlich, EM Consulting
Crystal Rockwood, of Rockwood Communication Counsel, Inc., spoke to the Orange County Law Firm Leadership Round Table about crisis PR and how to handle it. The following are tips and guidelines that Ms. Rockwood shared with our managing partner members.
It is not uncommon for law firms to be presented with reputational threats to their clients or their own practices. The spectrum of PR spans from routine PR Counsel and publicity outreach to Issue Management as a result of moderate business disruption, to crisis which is acute business disruption. Crises mandate emergency room procedures are used to stop credibility bleeding, client, donor departures, and protect pipeline projects. Once the firm is stabilized, certain rehab efforts in stages can begin leading to recovery.
Anticipated events such as findings from investigations, audits, bitter firings, and business dissolutions, can trigger negative PR and cause business disruption. Thankfully much can be prepared for in advance. The mistake is thinking the negative issue is too insignificant to warrant media attention. Media, often times, is the last to know. Those with large followers on social media can do as much if not more damage. In both the Issue Management and the Crisis stages, if law firms take an ounce of precaution today, they will have fortified their position no matter which storm comes their way.
Once a negative PR issue is anticipated or surfaces, it is imperative to take action. Here is what you can do now:
1. Check to see if your firm or client has a crisis management supplement embedded in existing insurance policies. These funds are available for the costs associated with mitigating a crisis for the purpose of maintaining and restoring public confidence in the insured. Crisis Management Insurance Reimbursement is paid as your carrier wants to maintain your firm’s greatest asset – its reputation. Policies are usually underwritten with $25,000 to $250,000, enough to retain crisis management professionals and often for legal services. If your firm does not have this coverage be sure to negotiate the rate up front and list the crisis management companies you prefer to work with. Doing this after the issue or crisis is more arduous.
Remember, once you or your clients’ reputation is in jeopardy business disruption begins to occur and impacts everything in the pipeline as well as potential clients, referral source relationships, industry and community influence, retention and recruiting efforts.
If anyone doubts the current power of social media to cause tectonic plate shift across nations, look no further than the #MeToo movement galvanized in October of 2017. According to the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Barrons and others, this phenomenon is causing investors, shareholders, advertisers, charities and consumers to re-calibrate their support of business executives and their firms whose culture appears to foster harassment. Consequently, Wall Street downgrades are taking place while some deals and mergers crash. Be certain of what your firm’s policy covers so you can access funds for to fight the storm.
2. Prepare a Go-Bag now which contains the tools a managing partner needs to “take and go” in a crisis. This includes key passwords, codes, how to reach people over the weekend including building security, specific protocols about incoming and outgoing communications (beyond media inquiries, like what to post on the firm’s website) and what is expected of others on the crisis response team. Above all else law firms need to stay on top of the message; own the narrative while being proactive.
3. Ask attorneys to make a list of referral sources and those individuals that maintain a strong seat of influence in case that is needed to be a part of the crisis recovery strategy. Third party resources like professors or high-end professionals can possibly say something positive about an individual, situation or the firm, per se. A firm in stable PR condition is engaging in creating diverse relational capital which strengthens a firm’s immune system when negative issues occur. Those who do not have a good balance of relational capital in the bank have a tougher and more expensive road to recovery.
4. Think about what can possibly cause a PR issue or crisis in your firm. United Airlines was undoubtedly prepared for a plane crash, but not so for a poor customer service incident that went viral. The source of the problem might include issues like a data breech or a disgruntled employees who steel a client list and takes data from the firm. In one such instance, an unhappy employee was a brilliant writer. He created reports and references that made the firm look weak and then sent them to the firm’s top clients in a compelling manner. Explore possible crisis scenarios and develop plans to combat them. Meeting with a Crisis PR professional proactively to consider and prepare scenarios can shorten the crisis significantly before it becomes too large to easily handle.
Part of the essential Go-Bag is a list of potential messengers, the point person(s) during a crisis. Never send the king into battle when a knight can do the job just as well. Always have at least two people on your incident team trained in media relations.
If the press calls, never say, “No Comment” because it equals, “I’m guilty,” and “You don’t matter.” Here are a few additional things that should never be said to a reporter:
- This isn’t newsworthy.
- When can I preview the article?
- I want to review my quotes first.
Instead, consider saying:
- I wish I could help you on this story. Unfortunately, my hands are tied.
- It’s a matter of pending litigation, please understand I can’t discuss this right now.
- I know you are up against a tight deadline. I am sorry I can’t be of more assistance.
As one of the managing partners in our group stated, “Bad news is important, good news can be irrelevant.”