Lawyers often advise their clients to stay silent in a business crisis. On one level this seems like a sensible approach. After all, lawyers are paid to avoid or mitigate legal exposure and silence feels safe. Unfortunately, this “no comment” approach collides with two realities.
First, information abhors a vacuum. In the age of Twitter and instant availability, if you do not fill the information vacuum someone else will. In the uncertainty of crisis, when a fine line may exist between perception and reality, to have “no comment” on unfolding events is to surrender control over the emerging narrative.
Second, clients can’t say “no comment” to everyone. What do they tell their spouse? What do they tell their golf buddies? The fact is, clients will talk. Better to be involved in crafting the boundaries than to hope for the best.
Basic Crisis Communications
Any lawyer who deals with a business crisis needs to be able to draft a statement for the press, prepare a reassuring letter to the client’s employees, and otherwise help a client communicate in a way that avoids legal risk while effectively conveying critical messages. When communicating in a crisis, keep the following in mind.
1. Know Your Audience
Know your intended audience and what they need to hear from you. This will require you to understand your client’s business. Do the client’s employees need to be reassured that their jobs are safe? What do customers need to hear? Suppliers? Be sure to communicate in a way tailored to your target.
2. Be Knowledgeable, Honest and Clear
Communicate knowledgeably, honestly and clearly. A crisis is chaotic and emotionally overwhelming for everyone involved. Your message should be the opposite. If called on to address a crisis, communicate what happened, why it happened, and what you will do to remediate the harm and prevent it from happening again. Do so with a few key message points that are clear and supportable.
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Apologize
People almost universally underestimate the power of a heartfelt apology. Don’t be afraid to apologize when called for; there are many ways to express comfort and empathy without straying into culpability concerns. If you apologize, do so sincerely and without equivocation or self-serving statements.
4. Write With Care
A written communication is a piece of craft art and should be treated as such. Take your time to make sure your writing is as persuasive as possible. Always include context, which allows you to frame the narrative in a manner you believe to be appropriate.
5. Don’t Delay
Communication that comes too late loses much of its power and may even be counterproductive. In a crisis, communications often need to be issued in hours, not days. Make sure you have spoken with your client about a communications plan, done preliminary drafting, and have received approvals in advance.
6. Watch Your Tone
The scrutiny surrounding a crisis will reveal any pitfalls and weaknesses in what you say and how you say it. It is easy for intent to be misconstrued in written communication. The lawyerly tone can mislead, but shorthand phrases, sarcasm and jokes also have no place in a crisis. It is always better to err on the side of formality, politeness and straightforward language. Remember that any letter or email you send is a tool for persuading the recipient and write accordingly.
7. Pay Attention to Details
Have you written your email subject line with care? Are you sending it to and from the right email address? Have you used the proper signature block? Have you removed the metadata from your letter? A carelessly named attachment can undermine the hours of work put into a careful email.
If you keep these tips in mind, you will be better prepared the next time a crisis comes knocking.
Is Your Crisis Communications Plan Ready for 2020?
In her new book, public relations and communications specialist Gina Rubel covers everything you need to know about modern public relations — including the key items to include in your firm’s crisis communications plan. Get ahead of any communications crisis — or opportunity — by following Gina’s clear, no-nonsense advice, checklists and templates for promoting yourself, your firm and your clients.
Published by Attorney at Work and available in our bookstore, here.