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In crisis communications - beware of lawyers - and not just those on the other side

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When we started delivering our media training courses back in the early 90's, we developed what we called our Ten Commandments (for dealing with the media). Over the years since then our observations and experiences prompted us to add three more, so now there are 13 commandments, but that doesn't have as good a ring to it, so we still call it our 10 Commandments. But it is one of those that we added that I want to focus today.


That commandment is #13 – Beware of Lawyers. 


Obviously that's a pretty flippant thing to say so it does beg some explanation. For the record we don't completely agree with Shakespeare on lawyers, but there have been moments.


From our observation and experience, especially in dealing with clients in some kind of crisis situation, we have found too many lawyers have tunnel vision, in that their sole focus is to either keep a client out of litigation, or, if it's too late for that, to mitigate the damages.  The problem with this is that this strategy doesn't consider the client's reputation. It's not unusual, for example, for a lawyer to instruct a client to say “no comment” if approached by the media on whatever the issue is.


This makes life easier for the lawyer, in that it avoids any possibility of the client saying anything legally damaging. But reputation wise, that's a different story. Our point is that you can win in the court of law, but if in doing so you lose in the court of public opinion, that's often too high of a price to pay.


It goes without saying that lawyers serve a useful purpose, and it would be foolhardy and irresponsible for me to suggest ignoring legal opinion, and I am suggesting no such thing. What I am saying is that the balance between legal and public relations objectives needs to be there, and too often it isn't, and all too often the client pays dearly because of it.


This is on my mind lately for a specific reason. We have been working with a client that, through no fault of its own, found itself in a crisis situation that had the potential to seriously damage its reputation. We ended up dealing with two lawyers on this file and I was pleasantly surprised that they both “got it”. “Pleasantly surprised”, because from past experience I knew this would be far from a given, and I was gearing up to do battle. It was so good to see that that wasn't necessary.


In our media training, participants learn of a Saint John firm that didn't get it at all, and the grief that that ended up causing.


But overall, it seems to be getting better. We've certainly had some excellent working relationships with lawyers on behalf of mutual clients, and we notice that more and more often in the larger corporate and not-for-profit world the Public Relations priorities are given appropriate weight as related to the legal priorities when there is an issue. It's certainly better than it was 10, 20 years ago.


There are still lots of bad examples, and I'll look at some of those in a subsequent blog.


For information on BissettMatheson Media Training

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