Let's be honest, when it comes to managing corporate reputation there is inevitably tension between legal and communication counsel. In spite of some movement toward detente, lawyers still prefer an impermeable cone of silence around a company facing conflict or criticism. Communication people (at least the good ones) push for maximum transparency and openness because that is what is expected by the public, regulators and the media. We believe that If an organization or individual's reputation is irreparably damaged, it doesn't matter how effective the legal case. Just ask O.J.
When it comes to a crisis, however, legal and communications counsel have got to learn to cooperate. They should be practicing together and sitting at the same crisis management tables. If this seems self-evident, I heard just the other day about a company being counseled that its lawyers didn't need to be involved in a crisis until after the first 48 hours, never mind participating with the client and its public relations team in crisis simulations.
For those who have doubts that crisis communications counsellors and attorneys simply have to work together better . . . during simulations and training and in crisis or issue war rooms . . . here are four good reasons why:
- Time is of the essence in communication during a crisis. You have to abbreviate significantly the time between development and approval of all messaging. Legal counsel sign-off on any public statements is critical since these statements become part of the legal record. The crisis communications team can’t afford the time to transmit messaging off-site and wait for legal approval.
- Because facts tumble out really quickly during a crisis, unless legal counsel are part of the crisis team they will always be one step behind in understanding what has happened – or is happening – during the crisis. This restricts their ability to provide proper and timely counsel both to the communication team and to the incident "commander".
- Regulators play an extremely important role in crises. The crisis communications team may need immediate advice on the positions being taken by various regulators and the scope of the regulators’ statutory mandates.
- Simulations are the only way for a crisis team to test the efficacy of its processes and to uncover any misunderstandings among team members (including legal counsel) about their roles and responsibilities. A team that works well together in practice will be able to provide safe, public-focused and compassionate counsel in a real incident.
We don't have to become friends. But we really should be listening to each other.