by Wendy R. Leibowitz
During a crisis, the instinct of many lawyers and law firms is to circle the wagons and proclaim defensively, "No comment."
In this age of Enrons, however, some experts are suggesting that it's time to have a communications plan for crises. It is difficult, because many crises are sudden and surprising. But not all. "Frequently a crisis is a problem that wasn't dealt with early enough," says John Hellerman, who recently left Levick Strategic Communications to form his own independent consulting firm. Mr. Hellerman led a discussion on Crisis Communications at a day-long legal marketing seminar in Washington on February 9. His fellow panelists were David Kalson, a media and public relations specialist with Ruder Finn, and Jayne O'Donnell, a reporter for USA Today who covers auto safety, consumer product news, and lately, Enron. She admitted that the Enron story didn't feel like a crisis to her at first because "no one had died." Then news of the suicide of an Enron executive came into the newsroom.
Some problems that law firms face regularly, especially in weak economic times, are so poorly managed that they do more damage than they should: layoffs, firings of partners, scandalous e-mails that become public, the departure of a high-profile lawyer or practice group, or a sexual harassment or employment discrimination suit. In effect, the law firms' poor crisis planning creates crises from problems. And of course, the firms do the same for their clients.
In a frank, free-wheeling discussion, the panelists proscribed concrete suggestions for crisis management.
1. Don't sound as if you have something hide.
"Attribution, attribution, and attribution," said Ms. O'Donnell. Many people do not return calls from the press during difficult times. "It creates more goodwill if you return the call and say you can't talk about the issue right now, but here is what your firm is doing to prevent the problem from happening again." She recommended defining the terms under which you are speaking to the reporter, such as "Off the record," or "Not for attribution." Make sure the terms mean the same to you as to the reporter. Even an off-the record conversation is better than not returning the call, she said.
Mr. Kalson recommended providing perspective on the issues raised by the crisis. Speaking generally, rather than specifically, is always better than avoiding the calls altogether, he said. "Eventually you might become a resource for the reporter," during better times, if you reliably return calls, he said.
2. Have a plan.
: This is a "hard sell" to law firms, who are always averse to spending time on planning and who imagine a plan as something in a large black notebook that sits on a shelf, unused. Mr. Hellerman noted that a plan that is not used is indeed a waste of time. But a good generic plan can be modified to fit any situation. People must know where to go and what steps to take during a problem situation, as in a fire drill. "A full- blown crisis occurs when you don't have a plan," said Mr. Hellerman.
Mr. Kalson said a good impetus for a communications plan is to videotape attorneys and ask them interview questions that a reporter might ask about real cases in the news, or situations the attorneys or the firm have faced. "When they see themselves struggling on tape, they become more receptive" to a training plan, he said. It is also a useful way to identify potential mis-communications in media communications.
3. Honesty really is the best policy.
Sometimes, there is no other alternative than to say, "We screwed up--here's how we're correcting it," said Mr. Kalson. The panel emphasized how important it is not to act defensive, and that people must be trained in such communication. A good example of pro-active crisis communications is what accounting firms are doing now, in the midst of the Enron scandal. They are stating, "Here is how we are changing our practices," and getting out in front of the news, rather than hiding and thanking their stars that Enron is not their client. Arthur Andersen is trying to get the message out that, "Enron is a problem. Here's a spotlight on all the things we do well," said Mr. Hellerman. The message should be clear and consistently repeated in many media.
If well-handled, a company that faces a crisis can become leaders for constructive change, as Tylenol did when it addressed the tampering of its aspirin bottles by pioneering tamper-proof safeguards.
4. Empathize, empathize.
If there are victims in a crisis to which your client or your firm is connected, be sure to express your sorrow. "You have to register your humanity," said Mr. Kalson. He mentioned a case in California in which an associate at a law firm had been involved in a car accident in which a child had been killed. The firm, instead of being profusely apologetic, mentioned that the associate had not been on company time. "The story then became whether or not the associate was on a cell phone at the time of the accident, and if so, was it for a client of the firm," he said.
A member of the audience said that "crisis communications" seemed to mean using the following three phrases: "I'm sorry, it won't happen again, and we just want to get on with our lives." Mr. Kalson emphasized that all communication must be substantive and sincere. If the lawyers do not sound sincere, he said, get someone else to speak for the firm--a satisfied client, for example, or a retired partner. "Do not ever use the word 'spin,'" he said. "Also, don't say, 'We're learning as we go along.'"
5. Do not always be a spokesperson for the client in crisis.
Although many people have become used to criminal defense attorneys speaking for clients, it is always best for clients to speak for themselves. Having a lawyer field questions can make the client look guilty before any charges are filed. Another client, or a respected public official familiar with the parties, may be a better public spokesperson than an attorney. "In our Jerry Springer television culture, many people want to be on television," said Mr. Kalson. "It does not mean that everyone should be on television." The three panelists criticized the choice of sending Kenneth Lay's wife to speak on television about the problems at the company. Not only could she not speak about any specifics of the company, but her message seemed to be, "We're poor, too," recalled Ms. O'Donnell. "I did start out sympathizing with her, but then remembered all the people who really are poor. Wrong message."
Ms. O'Donnell recalled that lack of any experienced spokesperson at first exacerbated the Ford/Firestone problems. "They hadn't had a tire crisis in about twenty years, and they didn't have anyone in Washington to discuss it," she said. Rumors were planted about problems at a rival tire company, but they proved to be false and did not improve the standing of Ford in reporters' eyes.
6. Set up an anonymous reporting system.
If there is a problem in the firm--a lawyer suspected of substance abuse; or financial irregularities--is there a place where people can anonymously report their concerns? If not, there should be, said Ms. O'Donnell. People must know where and to whom they can safely report: "I don't know if this is true, but I would like to bring this matter to your attention." Enron did not seem to have such a system, she noted. Instead, as in many successful companies, people who voice concerns as the stock price rises are considered Enemies of the People, and treated accordingly. An anonymous reporting system allows people to speak up without fear.
7. Pleasing personalities count.
It's important that anyone who speaks for a client or for a law firm, at any time, have a pleasing personality, be courteous, and, when appropriate, be able to respond with humor--preferably, self-deprecating humor.
8. It's a brave new world.
The firm and its clients should be braced for the 24-hour news cycle, where television commentators have all day to talk about you and your problems. And there's the Internet. Be prepared, seemed to be the final prescription. As with anything, preparation is key.