A corporate crisis situation can strike with very little warning. Law firms today operate in an environment where they arguably face more reputational perils than ever before. From data breaches to harassment complaints, there are so many potential pitfalls that can turn into a public relations crisis.
To compound things, the communications challenge of navigating a crisis is exacerbated by social media and the always-on, 24-hour media reporting cycle.
Crisis moments can be visualised as two challenges: the actual crisis which is happening to the firm, and the communication crisis, which threatens the reputation of the firm. If poorly managed, the communication crisis can easily outlive the actual crisis.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but a firm’s ability to survive a PR crisis can be developed and increased with preparation. The familiar saying: “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”, usually attributed to Seneca, captures this sentiment. A well-managed crisis usually involves a bit of both. Equally, the well-known golfing maxim: “the more I practice, the luckier I get” holds true.
While it is impossible to envisage and plan for every kind of crisis you may come up against, preparing for an event that could occur is often easily put off or delayed in favour of focusing on more immediate concerns. Crucial to overcoming this barrier is securing senior buy in, and recognising that reputation is an asset which needs careful management and consideration.
For a well-managed crisis, there are certain essential steps to prepare ahead of time. These include:
Identify the right response team
It’s easy to focus in a crisis on the spokesperson leading the response, who may be ‘the face’ of the firm, such as the Managing Partner. However, the team shaping the firm’s response should involve members of other management departments too, including HR, operations and legal counsel. Presenting incorrect information through lack of co-ordination with these teams is a sure-fire way to give the impression the firm doesn’t have a handle on the crisis.
Write your playbook
This will be your bible and first resource when the crisis breaks. An effective playbook will include pre-determined details, saving you from having to expend vital time making such decisions in the event of a crisis. This will include naming who the crisis response team will be (and their contact details), media handling protocols and protocols for communicating to internal and external stakeholders and the general public, and holding statements prepared in advance for specific scenarios. The playbook must be reviewed regularly to check all details are always current, and easily accessed when needed. The playbook will help you navigate the critical first stages of crisis smoothly, and give you time to prepare and respond effectively as the crisis develops and plays out.
Prepare your spokesperson
This is a crucial responsibility, and for the general public in particular as a group of stakeholders, their impression of how the company has responded to the crisis will be formed by the performance of the spokesperson. The spokesperson should be the most suited to handling the response, including media questions, which may not automatically be the CEO or Managing Partner. The spokesperson should be regularly media trained, and then well-briefed before any appearance, including with questions and answers prepared in advance to help them respond to tough questions. However, consideration should be given to the nature of the crisis – is it appropriate to put out a spokesperson for interview, or would issuing a statement to the media be best at that time? Every media response should be contextually appropriate, rather than a knee-jerk reaction.