Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Three Questions Communicators Want to Ask Attorneys

Attorneys have been part of my career ever since I became a journalist. I’ve interviewed lots of them in nearly every kind of situation. I’ve also dealt with them on the PR side of things in every crisis to which I’ve responded.

I’ve worked with spectacular attorneys, who had just the right advice at the perfect time and probably saved the response. I’ve also worked with attorneys I wouldn’t enjoy being handcuffed to if we made a cross-country buddy movie.

Crisis communications is a team sport, and communicators are going to have to work with attorneys. Both have important roles to play. With that as a background, I thought I’d highlight the three common questions communicators ask about attorneys. 

1. Why are attorneys so slow when it comes to approving statements in a crisis?

Most communicators I have worked with in a crisis can get an initial statement written in less than five minutes. Then they cool their heels waiting for legal approval while the media beg for information and others post about the crisis on social media. Communicators know attorneys have to get comfortable with the statement. We wish it didn't take them longer to approve a statement than it takes us to write it. 

Solution? Make sure the attorney understands what is going to be in your initial statement before the crisis strikes. Get the attorney comfortable with the template you'll use, then stick to it when you deploy it. You will shave precious minutes off your response time. 

2. Why do attorneys wordsmith instead of providing legal review?

We take a statement for legal review and it seems everyone wants to be a writer.

Attorneys don’t like adjectives and they do not like words that convey emotion. At least, that’s what Cecilia Showalter wrote in a 2010 post on communications and credibility. It’s a worth a read for the common ground we share.

Since all crises are human events, all crises have an emotional component. Communicators are taught to be empathetic with those impacted by a crisis. If you remove all words that contain emotion, you come across cold and unfeeling. How will that help anyone when the lawsuits get filed?

Solution? Work with your attorney to spell out how your company will express regret for an incident. Attorneys don't like when you say "I'm sorry" because it is considered an admission against interest. Really good lawyers will help you craft a statement that is both empathetic and legally sound.  

3. Why do attorneys seem to lack a sense of urgency in a crisis?

Communicators have told me they feel attorneys focus attention on small, unimportant things in a crisis. This perception may come from the different focus attorneys and communicators have in those early hours. There is a balance between short and long-term priorities that can be the heart of the attorney-communicator challenge. 
I've seen attorneys worry about approving a Tweet taken from an approved news release. To a communicator, this wastes time and energy for no tangible gain. We worry the attorney is more concerned about the deposition in two years than the crisis right now. Worrying about a Tweet helps no one, and can cripple a response with a culture of perfection. You don’t have to be perfect in a crisis. You just have to be good.

Solution? The best advice is always the simplest. Don't meet your new in-laws at the wedding and don't meet your attorney after the fire starts.

Crisis communications is a team sport. A communicator has to worry about a hundred things to succeed in a crisis. Worrying about your relationship with your attorney shouldn't be one of them. 

Bill Salvin


  1. Stephanie Westman (via LinkedIn)June 5, 2012 at 10:39 AM

    Thanks Bill, very insightful especially concerning crisis communication.

  2. Thank you, Stephanie. I appreciate you reading and taking the time to share your thoughts.

  3. CAPT Robert DurandJune 5, 2012 at 12:11 PM

    My suggestions for solving this problem:

    - In a crisis situation, time is of the essence. Maximum disclosure, minumum delay. Confirm the obvious. You need to establish your voice ASAP - first when possible. Your PR person should be able to able to state the obvious without clearing it through higher authority. A statement such as "There has been an explosion at the refinery and we are urgently trying to contain the fire, look for possible casualties and assess the situation. Our first concern is the safety of our employees and our neighbors" should not need CEO or legal approval. Have "permission to confirm the obvious" as part of your CEO-approved crisis comm plan.

    - Work with your legal team frequently. The crisis is not the time for introductions. Identify WHO in legal has approval authority - many will weigh in during or after a crisis. Know who your go-to lawyer is, and if they strike you as slow, a wordsmith or lacking urgency, raise the alarm. They aren't doing the company any favors.

    In my current job, I meet with our CEO (the JTF commander), our Staff Judge Advocate (his lead attorney and chief legal advisor) at 0730 every work day. These guys GET IT. They understand the need for speed and only edit for legal content. I have it good - and in my future jobs, I know what good looks like and will demand it - not for me, but because the reputation of the organization depends on how well - and how FAST - we respond in a crisis.

  4. I can write like nobody's business, but every thing I learned about "communication" I learned from you.

  5. Gilles Corriveau (via LinkedIn)June 6, 2012 at 2:16 PM

    Bill, you are so right.
    Teaching litigation communication to lawyers for the past 6 years has made me realize that the sense of urgency (as in the business world) does not exist in that profession. Lawyers live in a system where the turtle is king, not the rabbit.

    May I suggest two more questions:
    Why do they often forget that preserving the stakes of a client in the court of public opinion is non only valuable, but also important for his future activities? Why some lawyers think that the outcome of a legal procedure is all that matters ?
    There is a life after a legal procedure.

  6. Stephanie Westman (via LinkedIn)June 6, 2012 at 2:17 PM


    Great questions and yes, I do agree. Another question would be “What is
    your definition of crisis communication i.e., negative PR or unfounded bad
    publicity”. Excellent discussion, thanks!

  7. Stephanie, thank you so much for reading and for taking the time to comment. Hearing what the lawyer's definition of a crisis comms would be instructive in helping the communicator work with the legal folks. I wouldn't rely on them to define crisis comms, however. I think communicators need to be able to define that for themselves.

  8. Gilles-
    Great questions to add to the list. I really want to say thanks for taking the time to add to our discussion. There are so many important things to consider in a crisis. The legal aspect is just one of them. The best thing that communicators can do is assume that the company is going to communicate and be ready to be persuasive internally so that you are in the best position to protect your company's reputation.

  9. Mr. Vorndran, you are too kind. Hope you're well. Thanks for reading.

  10. Mark Lambert (via LinkedIn)June 7, 2012 at 8:38 AM

    Good topic, Bill. I have struggled with attorneys in crisis situations, and I often found myself lamenting their lack of urgency and dismissiveness of the need to communicate quickly and effectively. I now do crisis communication seminars for government agencies and private industries, and one of the things I tell them to do first in a crisis is to lock the lawyers out of the room. It's an exaggeration, of course, but it makes the point that it's always a struggle.

  11. Hello, Bill.
    Well. I can say in you case you might not be working in a Law Firm, just imagine that... I do work in one. So. What can you say if you must to deal with a crisis in a Law Firm company?
    The best way to deal with it in a non-law firm company, is like you said: avoid lawyers, and let them realise once you have taken the communications directions you need to face the crisis.
    It´s little hard, but maybe if you need a good speaker, a lawyer could be a good one too.

  12. Hi Anonymous-Nope, don't work at a law firm. I'm not sure I wrote anything that encourages avoiding lawyers, although I understand the feeling. In your case where lawyers are the ones having a crisis, I would recommend finding a really good PR person to work with to help with the PR aspects of the crisis. I wouldn't represent myself in a court proceeding, why should lawyers deprive themselves of good PR counsel? Lawyers can be great speakers. Litigators have to be in order to be truly effective before a jury. But the traits that make a speaker great are not necessarily the skills that will help a firm navigate a crisis. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Thanks for weighing in.

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