Crisis Communication Planning and the Roles Lawyers Play
by Paramjit Mahli
Love it or hate it, social media speeds up the distribution of information. When the news is good, social media is loved by the powers that be. When an unexpected crisis arises and there are no contingency plans on how to work with the press, results can be devastating.
Google, for example, has made information easily accessible to the public. Because of this, the potential for creating real damage to the business’s reputation is greater than ever before.
No industry, organization or institution is immune from a crisis. A crisis can be product recalls, an accident in the office, class-action lawsuits, sexual harassment claims or consumer activism. All have the potential to damage the perception of a business in the eyes of the public.
In any situation that threatens the integrity or reputation of an organization, lawyers find themselves in a unique position between management and other stakeholders. Thus, lawyers have the ability to provide a value-added service to their clients by understanding the role the media plays in creating perceptions.
Translation: Lawyers should be proactive by taking on a leadership role to ensure their firm, company and/or clients have a basic crisis communication plan in place.
They should revisit the plan at least twice a year and modify it accordingly.
Crisis communication plans are templates that provide an organizational framework of who will be responsible for which specific task, when and if a crisis should occur. The plan will impose order, structure and direction.
Without a plan, the left hand won’t know what the right hand is doing, particularly when the press is knocking on the door. It should outline in detail operational procedures.
Each crisis will differ and teach you something new, which likely will result in modifications to your plans. However, every plan must contain these 10 essential components:
1. Coordinator: Typically, a public relations firm or publicist who coordinates with the press. The coordinator ensures that all press requests are handled in a timely manner.
2. Spokesperson: Sometimes, the attorney is the spokesperson. Even when that’s not the case, there is a fair amount of dialogue between the attorney and the spokesperson. The spokesperson usually has media training or comes from a media background. In many cases there is more than one official spokesperson.
3. Media: The reporters who cover your firm, or client’s beat.
4. Media log: This file should list all press inquires, information sent, and when you can expect to hear back or see a news report. If there is more than one individual on the coordination team, be clear on which tasks were delegated to whom.
5. Rules of Engagement: The coordinator should police the spokespeople to make sure they don’t talk to external sources until they have understood all the facts. Otherwise, they may make costly mistakes.
The plan should also include how and what to communicate to any other organization, stakeholder or community that has specific interest in and is impacted by the crisis. Have talking points to stick by.
6. Social Media: The plan should incorporate technologies such as Facebook and Twitter because they have become increasingly important over the last few years. You may need a different team to manage the crisis online.
7. Consistent Messaging: Communicate key messages for all of your audiences in a consistent manner, whether they are within the organization or are external. The messages must address questions and concerns in language that different stakeholders understand. In a crisis, many tend to lean toward objectivity and legal language, which will work only to your disadvantage. The public wants to hear and sense that you understand the gravity and depth of the circumstances.
8. Schedule: Depending how long the crisis persists, the coordinator should regularly meet with reporters, keeping them abreast of the latest developments.
9. Backups: You should have backups for all the key players on your team, especially if there is only one of each.
10. Human Touch: All crisis circumstances, whether business-related or natural disasters, must have a human face. Regardless of how well-prepared you or your client are, it is critical to connect and relate to all the key stakeholders impacted by the situation. Sometimes it’s best to fess up.
Once a crisis period ends, all components of the plan must be evaluated to identify weak spots, make improvements, figure out what worked and what didn’t work, etc., and incorporate them in a revised plan. Crisis communication plans help mitigate and reduce the potential for damage, saving money and often reputation. Benjamin Franklin summed it up very well: "by failing to prepare you are preparing to fail."
Paramjit L. Mahli is with award-winning SCG Legal PR Network. She is a former journalist who has worked with CNN Business News, Canadian Broadcast Corporation and Journal of Commerce. Comprised of small and large firms throughout the United States, SCG Legal PR Network connects legal experts with reporters nationally and internationally. Mahli is a contributor to Legal Broadcast Network and writes frequently for Technolawyer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.