Monday, August 23, 2010

Getting The Communications Professionals And Lawyers To Work Together In A Crisis

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a lengthy article on the public relations and crisis management mistakes of Toyota, Goldman Sachs, and BP: "P.R. Missteps Fueled Fiascos at BP, Toyota and Goldman - In Case Of Emergency: What Not To Do," The New York Times, August 21, 2010. Of particular interest to me was the discussion of how conflicts between the public relations consultants and the legal team can contribute to an ineffective public relations response to a crisis. For example, in the case of BP, the conflicts between the two groups was described as follows:

The company had to contend with a classic corporate quandary of balancing advice from counselors with starkly different considerations, according to people familiar with BP’s deliberations who requested anonymity because the advice was confidential. In times of crisis, communications professionals and lawyers often pursue conflicting agendas. Communications strategists are inclined to mollify public anger with expressions of concern, while lawyers warn that contrition can be construed as admissions of guilt in potentially expensive lawsuits. For BP, this tension burst into view in May, when executives went to Capitol Hill with officials from two of its contractors: Transocean, which owned the offshore rig that exploded, and Halliburton, which aided BP in drilling. Executives from the three companies each disowned culpability while pointing fingers at one another. “What that screamed is the lawyers are in control,” says Mr. Reeves. “All it did was get everybody all the more peeved at them.”

The author returned to this theme later in the article in the following discussion about Toyota's public relations problems:

Above all, crisis management is conducted with stress and sleeplessness layered atop the usual factionalism and politics afflicting any big organization. Mr. Dezenhall, the strategist, is amused by crises as glimpsed in movies, where people sit at banks of synchronized computers, speaking calmly into headsets. “The reality is absolute chaos,” he says. “Nobody knows what the facts are. The lawyers are trying to get the P.R. consultants fired and the P.R. consultants are criticizing the lawyers. Everybody despises each other. It’s a totally unmanageable situation. A corporation in crisis is not a corporation. It is a collection of panicked individuals motivated by self-preservation.”
As a lawyer and communications consultant, one of my objectives in a crisis situation is to make sure that the communications professionals and lawyers are working together instead of pursuing potentially conflicting agendas. Often this involves convincing the legal team that effective crisis management and brand preservation can work hand-in-hand with the legal strategy, while at the same time convincing the communications professionals that legitimate concerns about corporate liability must be taken into account in designing the communications strategy. The client is the ultimate beneficiary when each group of professionals gives a little rather than seeking to dominate the other.

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