Some public relations teams disdain working with corporate lawyers during a crisis. Lawyers speak and write in ambiguous, impersonal corporate language. Lawyers are known for delaying or withholding comments when crises demand fast responses. In their efforts to protect the organization’s legal interests, lawyers often seem to care little or not at all about the firm’s image.
In using the law to guide all decisions, attorneys often underestimate the impact of media and public opinion on corporate reputation. But even if lawyers build a strong legal position, the corporation can still be forced to surrender to demands of the media and pressure groups.
That’s why PR pros believe lawyers are poor crisis managers.
In Defense of Lawyers
While PR pros often criticize lawyers, they are not perfect either. PR pros may seem too quick to admit fault and apologize, and can unknowingly expose clients to expensive litigation costs and legal quagmires in return for positive media coverage and public goodwill. Avoiding serious legal or financial troubles can often be more important than gaining favorable media clips to influence public opinion.
“Advice from lawyers in big-ticket PR crises can’t prevent the flow of negative articles, but neither can the PR crisis team,” says Arthur Solomon, a former senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller. “However, lawyers might be able to prevent a client from getting into deeper legal trouble or going to jail. PR crisis people can’t.”
Many PR and communications pros involved in PR crisis mistakenly believe that all journalists only want to report the facts. They therefore strive for rapid and frequent communication and an immediate apology. However, the media are often the greatest problem, says Daniel Valentine, group director for Web Shandwick.
In the rush of reporting, the media can substitute speculation and opinions for facts. The tabloid news media, he says, typically follow a preconceived format. They assume the victims are blameless, the corporation is the villain, company managers are incompetent and/or callous and care only about profits, and journalists are the vindicators, assisting helpless victims. Although PR can befriend reporters, it’s an uphill struggle.
PR crisis experts agree that it’s crucial for lawyers to work on crisis management teams and for PR and legal pros to collaborate closely. Cooperation between PR and legal teams is the optimum path to help organizations survive a disastrous crisis.
How PR can Work with Lawyers
Obtain legal review. Lawyers should review all prepared crisis communications and PR proposals during a crisis. “Alleviating the legal risks associated with an inappropriate or unapproved crisis response is just as important as reducing a client’s reputational risks following a crisis,” says Richard Chen, an associate consultant with APCO Worldwide.
Talk to each other. Lawyers need to keep PR updated about legal strategy, and PR pros need to articulate exactly what they need from the lawyers. Give the lawyers a list of questions journalists may ask. Review the prepared answers with lawyers. Ask attorneys what PR representatives can say and what they cannot say.
Don’t assume attorney-client privilege applies to PR. Court cases have reached conflicting conclusions on whether attorney-client privilege shields PR communications with a client. While courts seem to resolve the question on a case-by-case basis, organizations can take steps to protect attorney-client privilege for PR.
Ponder the possible legal ramifications of public apologies and similar expressions. Apologizing can be akin to admitting fault, and admitting fault is a suicidal legal strategy, explains Cayce Myers, legal research editor for the Institute for Public Relations.
Courts can accept press releases, social media postings, statements at press conferences, and other communications as evidence against the company. Some states have “I’m Sorry” laws that exclude mortification statements, or statements of remorse or empathy, from being accepted as evidence in court, but the issue can be complex and results are not certain.
How to resolve disputes. Often, advice from PR and legal conflict. PR usually advises to admit errors and apologize; legal may advise to be circumspect (or even stonewall) to avoid or minimize litigation. In the end, C-suite decision-makers must resolve the differing approaches and determine the best course of action. Sometimes, it’s no-win. Neither the PR nor the legal playbook can protect the organization against recrimination – either legal or in the court of public opinion.
Bottom Line: Although PR crisis management teams may disdain lawyers, it’s crucial for PR and legal professionals to work together to protect clients from both legal and reputational risks. Legal input is required to help the organization understand legal implications of decisions and communications, and to minimize high litigation costs.
Download the 2019 PR Crisis Playbook — A Guide on Crisis Prevention and Management for PR and Corporate Communications Professionals
This article was first published on Aug. 13, 2015, and updated on May 27, 2020.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.