Balancing Public Relations Needs with Legal Concerns in a Crisis

Public relations professionals and attorneys often are accused of having opposing goals in crisis communication. While PR pros usually are focused on humanizing a crisis with transparency and protecting an organization’s reputation in the court of public opinion, attorneys are concentrating on the court of law and minimizing the risk of adverse legal action.

For the attorney, that mindset often drives a desire to share as little information as possible in the heat of a crisis. It also makes attorneys loathe to even consider issuing an apology in the belief that an apology is akin to admitting guilt. But an apology and acknowledgement of fault are two distinct things.

In a crisis, the attorney’s role may be that of devil’s advocate, the worst-case-scenario pessimist who can help the communicator understand the myriad ways that ill-conceived or hasty communication can do more harm than good. The PR professional understands the importance of controlling the dialogue (to the extent possible) and making sure that the company’s story is told accurately. We recognize that nature abhors a vacuum, and that rumors and misinformation can quickly dominate the crisis narrative in the absence of both compassion and facts directly from the organization.

The midst of chaos is the worst time to try to convince the attorneys that immediate communication is required to try to contain the damage. By focusing on crisis planning and preparedness, including a comprehensive crisis communication plan, the PR manager can help attorneys to get comfortable with strategy and the initial statements that need to be made quickly.
Lawyers should play an important role in crisis communication strategy, not in dictating messaging, but in helping strike the balance between fulfilling stakeholders’ need for information and protecting the company from undue exposure to liability. Understanding each other’s job helps communicators and attorneys to work together to help assure that the organization can win both in the court of public opinion and the court of law, if the crisis comes to that.

Finally, it is in our best interests as public relations professionals to develop convincing arguments for making a public apology when something bad happens. Part of striking the balance between addressing both legal concerns and the needs of the business to earn the trust of its stakeholders is knowing when it makes sense to fall on your sword and say “we screwed up, and we are sorry.” From a business perspective, that is very often the message that needs to be delivered. Savvy attorneys are starting to recognize that apologies can defuse a crisis and protect the organization from harmful litigation. Savvy communicators should embrace the views of their attorneys and educate them on how crisis communication planning and statement preparation, done right, also protects the organization from undue harm.