When a crisis strikes, many attorneys have the same instinct: to clamp down on corporate communications and make the fewest number of public statements possible (if any at all). That’s because an attorney’s primary job is to minimize future financial payouts and, in cases of criminal wrongdoing, to reduce your culpability.
But that’s a narrow prism through which to view a crisis, and it may not be sufficient to keep your business afloat. Too often, attorneys fail to take your long-term reputation into account. They also neglect to consider the impact of a crisis on employee recruitment, retention, productivity, and morale, as well as customer, shareholder, and donor loyalty.
In some crises, the amount of damage to your reputation can exceed the legal payout. Sure, your lawyer’s legal strategy may result in a courthouse victory three years from now, but it may come at the steep cost of years of unflattering headlines.
Crises require you to make tough choices, occasionally ones that pit sound legal advice against sound communications advice.
For example, I once asked a top executive in crisis whether her top goal was to keep her job (which would be accompanied by a drawn-out legal case and severe damage to her reputation) or to maintain her reputation in the long term, which would require her to leave her job (but allow her to ditch the legal case). Based on dozens of case studies and the predictable stages most crises follow, I counseled her that she would have to make a difficult choice: her job or her reputation.
She insisted she could keep both and failed to act. Within weeks, she lost her job—and her reputation.
When faced with such a choice, ask yourself the following three questions:
- 1. What’s the right thing to do?
- 2. Have I received input from legal and communications professionals and given both perspectives consideration?
- 3. Can I develop a strategy that marries the best legal and PR advice? Better yet, can I find an attorney who excels in communications and fully supports the PR function?
Like attorneys, insurance companies typically have the sole goal of reducing their payouts. Worse, many insurance policies actually prohibit you from doing the right thing. For example, my company’s insurance policy reads:
“You must not admit liability for or settle or make or promise any payment in respect of any claim, loss or damage which may be covered under this Policy.”
In other words, if a crisis hits my firm and I determine that an admission of wrongdoing is the best way to minimize the crisis and keep my company out of the headlines, I can’t offer one. Doing so might result in a voided claim and a canceled policy.
Still, this isn’t always the case. Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, advises clients to find a company more enlightened in its approach to crisis communications. Speak to your carrier—some errors and omissions insurance contracts have a crisis-management component. If worst comes to worst, you could always cancel your policy and go it alone so long as the potential payout is low and the risk of inaction is high. That’s a risky strategy, so consult a lawyer and insurance professional before going “bare.”