Long-Term Relationships Are Key To Successful Dealings with Legal

Your ability to work productively with the legal team can make or break your company's response to any crisis. But the high-stress circumstances surrounding any crisis situation can cause attorneys and PR professionals alike to lose sight of their common goal: the greater good of the organization. That's much less likely to happen if you have a long-standing relationship with both internal and external legal teams. Building that sort of trusting relationship takes time and initiative on the part of the communications department, but it has paid off richly for companies like Sears and Verizon. This month, Peter Thonis, SVP of external communications for Verizon, and Jan Drummond, senior director of external communications for Sears Roebuck, along with Richard Levick of Levick Strategic Communications, offered their advice for working successfully with attorneys in a PR NEWS Webinar, "Managing PR and Legal Concerns." Read on for their counsel on everything from understanding legal's point of view to negotiating with the attorneys when you take your seat at the "situation table." Precedent vs. Prospect The legal perspective is inherently different from the marketing communications perspective, Levick says. Lawyers are, by their training, always looking at what has come before, at precedent. Meanwhile, the PR professionals are always looking at what's on the horizon. "There has to be an appreciation of how the two differ. [The PR] world is perception, and the lawyer's is reality and facts." It's crucial that legal gain a better understanding of how perception will impact the larger goal - the success of the company. For example, Levick says, when there was a question of contamination of Coca Cola in Europe, the CEO of Coca Cola happened to be in Brussels. The facts of the matter: It turned out there was no contamination. The perception: Coca Cola's reputation took a serious hit when the image that emerged from the situation was the CEO being shuffled onto a plane back to the States instead of staying to address the potential crisis. Take the Initiative Getting this sort of message through to a legal team that may not have the utmost respect for the PR department isn't easy. Drummond says it's up to the PR professionals to initiate a relationship and prove their value to the legal team. "Ask for a meeting and find out what issues and trends are important to them." For example, Sears' legal department is particularly concerned with certain labor issues right now. One question that is in the public eye is whether certain salaried positions should be exempt from overtime pay. Employees whose jobs are technically designated as management claim they are performing the same duties as hourly employees who are paid when they work overtime. Drummond and her team have taken it upon themselves to carefully monitor this issue in the media - not only for their own communications purposes, but so they can serve as a valuable resource for the legal team. "We have a meeting scheduled with the senior labor attorney to discuss our vulnerabilities," she says. She and her team monitor a variety of these issues and keep the legal team updated at weekly meetings. "One of the things PR people have above and beyond other specialties is an intimate knowledge of how news media operates." Levick, too, sees this as a trump card in dealing with legal, and advises PR professionals to examine the issues the legal team is considering and provide them with the worst case scenario. "General counsel will always presume they will win, and almost all of the time, they will be right. But they will lose on some occasions, and they will seldom if ever anticipate or prepare for the worst case. Our most important skill as a PR professional is to act like Merlin and say, 'This is likely what will happen next.'" Verizon's Thonis advises communications executives to put those predictions in writing. "Write down what the really bad headlines would look like. If I were a reporter, what would I be writing? If I were in a really foul mood, what would I put on paper? When you do that, something magical happens. When you write things down, people pay attention." Thonis says seeing the potential headlines often gives attorneys a jolt of reality and forces them to sit at the strategy table and negotiate communications strategies to mitigate those worst case scenarios. Eliminate Ego It's not all about teaching the legal team newfound respect for PR, however. PR has much to learn from the attorneys, as well, and mutual respect is crucial. Serve as a resource for the legal team as often as possible, but also open yourself to its critiques and advice for your communications efforts. At Verizon, for example, Thonis is dealing with a labor issue as well. A union is putting out misleading and distorted information about layoffs at the company, says Thonis, and he has had to work hand-in-hand with the lawyers to ensure that his communications strategy doesn't go out "ahead of where we're supposed to be in making a case against the union." Thonis and his team need the facts from the attorneys so they can build their own case with the media and other stakeholders. Building that case not just in court, but with every company stakeholder, should be the ultimate goal for both teams. "Legal and media strategy should coexist," says Levick. "But they don't always match. A famous example right now would be Martha Stewart. Clearly she's listening to legal advice, but it's costing her dramatic marketshare. If legal and PR are not communicating and acting together, then you will [cater to] one audience at the expense of another." (Levick, rlevick@levick.com; Drummond, jdrumm2@sears.com; Thonis, peter.thonis@verizon.com) Put it in Writing Our experts say one of the best ways to convey PR concerns to legal is by providing them a written analysis of possible outcomes to any crisis situation. Sears's Jan Drummond and her team have devised a unique method of doing just that, dubbed the Critical Incident Communications Planning Worksheet. She and her team meet weekly to discuss critical incidents and brainstorm scenarios and communications responses. To create a worksheet, the team: Identifies and defines the incident Identifies the affected Sears constituencies, whether they are customers, employees, vendors, news media, shareholders, regulators, etc. Notes implications for those various constituencies - for example, shareholders might be concerned a particular incident would affect stock price Develops responsive messages and determines who should deliver them and what communications channels to use These worksheets have been a core element of building trust with the legal team, and in several cases, the PR team has brought a completed "worksheet" to meetings with legal to answer all the questions the law department has about the communications plan. Editor's Note: It's not too late to catch the Webinar if you weren't able to attend. An audio tape and speakers' presentation materials are available at http://www.PRandMarketing.com.

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