The legal-communication crisis tightrope

In 2010 the BP Deepwater Horizon huge and disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrated just about every possible lesson on how not to handle a crisis.

A CEO, Tony Hayward, who said dumb things which demonstrated a lack of empathy; technical people thrashing around in vain attempts to stop the flow; oil and gas lobbyists frantically working the corridors in Washington and Florida to prevent any tightening of the already loose controls on off-shore drilling; and, a post spill compensation plan which rewarded many of the unaffected and failed to compensate the affected – just as happened after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Deep inside BP, metaphorically as deep as the stricken well was underwater, there was probably also an ongoing struggle between legal counsel and communicators about what to do and say even if it seems neither of them came up with any more sensible strategies than the bright idea the engineers thought up – such as capping the spill with a huge metal dome. Needless to say the spouting oil blew the dome away.

The problem of how to integrate legal and communication advice has been around for a long time.

Now one of Australia’s leading issues management and crisis practitioners and scholars, Dr Tony Jaques, has written a new book, Crisis Counsel: Navigating Legal and Communication Conflict, which is the first book of its kind to explore in detail how to balance conflicting advice from lawyers and communication professionals in the face of a crisis while promoting open communication and protecting legal liability.

Dr Jaques said: “pretty much every crisis manager has a horror story about when they crashed up against a wall of legal objections affecting what to say and what to do. The question is, how real is this functional tug-of-war, or is it just a legend served up to frighten young communication professionals?”

In writing the book he co-operated with the reputation management consultancy, Senate SHJ and its global partners. They undertook a research project which asked experienced crisis lawyers in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA and UK to share their views about communicators in a crisis and the results are incorporated in a chapter of the new book. There is also a separate report on the legal research project: Crisis Counsel: What lawyers truly think of crisis communicators.

Dr Jaques said: “While the lawyers believe the relationship with communicators is improving, most acknowledged that conflict between legal and communication advice is very real. They think communicators are too willing to disclose information in a crisis which may lead to liability or future litigation, and they are also concerned about lack of legal awareness among communication professionals.”

“The interviews show the area most prone to conflicting legal and communications advice relate to disclosure and timing. In the main, the lawyers believe communicators’ tendency to communicate openly and transparently results in a possible conflict between disclosure and potential legal liability.

“Asked who should take the lead in a crisis, a significant number of the lawyers interviewed said it should be the communicator or the CEO, but a clear majority said it should be the lawyer who takes the lead.

“When the lawyers were asked what would be their single message to communicators, one responded: “Help me understand what you need to achieve so that I can help you and you can help me,” he said.

Communicators who have lived through crises will not be surprised that the research showed particularly problematic areas in the relationship were communicating during litigation, as well as issues of business ethics and professional privilege, and the vexed question of how and when to apologise.

Other research findings included: Making decisions in a crisis under time pressure with inadequate facts is seen as a major challenge for lawyers; lawyers strongly support face-to-face meetings with communicators to reduce conflict and craft the best crisis strategies; although some lawyers believe conflict with communicators uncommon, many still don’t trust communicators to do the right thing when a crisis strikes; lawyers believe the main strength they bring to a crisis – ahead of legal expertise – is being calm and predictable; lawyers believe the main strengths communicators bring to a crisis are understanding stakeholders and the ability to develop succinct messaging; and, better understanding and respect for each other’s roles was identified by the lawyers as the single most important factor in working better together.

In contrast to the view of lawyers not trusting communicators – although there are some communicators who ought not be trusted on competence or other grounds – it is worth remembering a Scottish oil spill where the CEO rushed to the site and said: while his lawyers advised him it was not the company’s fault he felt as if it was. The incident was largely forgotten while now when people think of oil spills it is either Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez.

The Jaques book covers: balancing reputation protection and legal obligation during a crisis; knowing why and how to apologise without increasing liability; weighing legal and communications advice when a crisis strikes; learning from original research which lets lawyers and communicators speak in their own words; drawing practical everyday lessons from case studies of conflict between lawyers and communicators; navigating the legal and communication challenges of dealing with the media in a crisis; motivating lawyers and communicators to work better together (although the legal team is very often very much larger than the communication team and the relative hourly charge out rates are eye-opening); identifying and avoiding crucial areas of potential conflict as illustrated by selected crisis case studies; understanding the essential differences between corporate responsibility and legal liability; and making decisions and doing the right thing to protect an organization.

This book provides hands-on, practical guidance for senior executives, lawyers and public relations professionals to navigate crises and to balance conflicting advice from lawyers and communication professionals while promoting open communication and protecting legal liability.

It includes a wide variety of global case studies and examples which analyse how legal and communications advice was managed and the impact on reputation.

And also includes in-depth interviews with interviews with four of the leading global experts on crisis management as well as the detailed conclusions of the global survey of senior lawyers.

Crisis Counsel: Navigating legal and communication conflict – will be released in August by Rothstein Publishing – and can be pre-ordered.