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Lawyers Should Not Rewrite Crisis Communications

Introduction by Bruce Hennes, Hennes Communications


Hennes Communications was founded in 1989 as a full-service public relations firm.  In 2001, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we became one of the few firms in North America focused exclusively on crisis management and crisis communications.

Since then, we frequently work with attorneys, who tend to be the “first responders” when a crisis situation erupts.  In fact, most of the time, it’s the attorney who brings us into the situation.  Even when we’re brought to the table by a C-Suiter, one of our first questions is almost always “who’s your attorney?”

Attorneys are so important to our work that I spend most of my day with attorneys, either in client meetings, in service to the profession as a “public” member of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association where I’m told I’m one of only a few non-attorneys in the country with a seat on the board of a major bar association, or presenting 40-60 Continuing Legal Education (CLE) seminars each year for the American Bar Association, state and local bar associations and law firms.

At every CLE I teach, I talk about the necessity of communicating with clarity, speed, transparency, admitting the obvious and the importance of a genuine apology – and not sounding like an attorney.

My favorite case-in-point: After Dr. David Dao was forcibly assaulted and removed from his airline seat by two police officers some years’ back, more than 24 hours later United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz said he was sorry “for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

“Re-accommodate”?  Who talks like that?  Attorneys do, ending up reinforcing their role – and United’s CEO’s role – as the Villain in this Villain-Victim-Vindicator (the “3-V’s”) situation.  For a variety of reasons, I have no doubt that CEO Munoz acted and spoke the words of his attorneys, rather than the crisis communications professionals I’m certain he had access to.

Most attorneys (though not all) I encounter operate from the mindset they acquired in law school: Do no harm; admit as little as possible; an apology is tantamount to an admission of guilt; practice risk-aversion; and do everything possible to win in court, despite the fact that 97% of all civil cases filed in U.S. courts are settled prior to trial.

Michael Skapinker, a contributing editor for the Financial Times, wrote that lawyers shouldn’t rewrite crisis communications — and that their desire to ensure companies do not admit legal liability can cause serious damage.

Skapinger’s article states that lawyers’ first response may be to worry about the company’s legal liability, preferring not say too much or to be defensive. But a lawyer whose first response in a crisis is to protect the company’s legal position, quoting Keith Ruddock from Royal Dutch Shell, “may (eventually) win the legal case, but could well have already lost the reputational argument. Most companies can withstand a major financial impact, but a reputational disaster will take years to recover from.”

Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the CEO, president, executive director, board chair or mayor to decide what gets said to stakeholders and the public.  Whenever possible, it’s our belief that decision-maker will be best-served by seeking advice from both attorneys and experienced crisis management experts who work together to provide holistic advice about what to say, when to say it, where to say it and how to say it.

For the rest of the Financial Times article by Skapinker, click here.

Free Stock photo by Vecteezy

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