A Crisis Team Can Save Your Brand

Bill McIntyre
Bill McIntyre

It’s an occupational hazard for many companies: If the legal squad and the communications crew are unable to find a way to be responsive during a crisis, you’ll be left at the starting line while negative messaging runs free, the opportunity to protect your reputation gets lost, and your inability to respond weakens.

Taken together, this will raise suspicion among employees, customers and shareholders that your company is not worth supporting because it is unwilling (or unable) to help itself.

How do you overcome this? We cannot practice during a real crisis because the stakes are too high. Reading about how to manage a reputation helps with the theory of working together in a crisis, but lacks the practical road test needed to expose the strengths and weaknesses of your crisis plan and processes.

The keys to improving the relationship between legal and PR are:

  • Establish a crisis team with hierarchy, structure and membership from management, communications, legal, HR, operations, IT, government relations and customer relations.
  • Identify responsibilities and roles: Who makes the decision to comment publicly? Who has veto power? What conditions must be met to make a ‘go, no-go’ decision?
  • Run scenarios and challenge each crisis-team member to identify the ‘must fix’ gaps versus the ‘nice to have’ fixes stemming from each of the scenarios.

Can We All Just Get Along?

I recently took part in an industry panel discussion focusing on corporate reputation management during a crisis. It was the first of dozens of such panels that I’ve participated in where the audience was nearly bereft of PR pros.

The crowd consisted of in-house corporate regulatory attorneys, company general counsels, private sector attorneys and very few communications professionals. I was thrilled.

This was a unique opportunity for me to show how to balance the equally important priorities of legal and communications teams, in real time, for effective reputation management during a crisis (and not).

Here’s what PR pros can do to create a better balance between legal and PR:

  • Monitor the media coverage about your industry and build a list of potential crises. Conduct an analysis on the crises that have hit competing companies. You also can talk to senior managers about their worst-case scenarios.
  • With that list completed, identify an internal crisis team (that includes legal and communications leadership) to conduct a mock crisis response exercise. The exercise will create draft materials to have on hand for potential crises, highlight the gaps in your plan and processes and allow you to balance expectations and streamline procedures.
  • Send your general counsel and your communications director to reputation-management training sessions. The cost is worth having legal and PR understand each other’s needs.

In every crisis I have managed, the communications leadership routinely was frustrated by the legal department’s reliance on legalese, or jargon used by attorneys that can alienate the very audiences you want to serve. Just as often, however, the legal team cringed at PR pros’ badgering it to dump the legalese and “speak like a normal person.” That friction can make a bad situation worse.

No Infighting

Lisa Powers, executive VP, public affairs & communications for the Personal Care Products Council, agreed with my assessment. “During a crisis, facts get obscured by perceptions and legalese gets tuned out,” she said.

John Richter, a partner with the international law firm King & Spalding LLP, provides this tip: “You have to avoid premature statements that could create confusion or have liability implications. You need to be accurate, consistent, and timely—in that order.”

Unfortunately, the PR-legal dynamic usually leads to infighting, a condition that is antithetical to what you need during a crisis.

To improve this state of affairs you need to establish a chain of command, where both legal and communications report to the same senior executive.

Building a stable communications and cooperation bridge between legal and PR is your best chance to balance the equally important priorities of both teams. It’s also a fundamental requirement for effective reputation management in a crisis.

CONTACT: Bill McIntyre is managing director, Ketchum PR, Washington D.C. He can be reached at bill.mcintyre@ketchum.com

This article originally appeared in the June 22, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.