Managing Competing Advice in a Crisis
Vianovo | Oct 3, 2012
When faced with a high-profile crisis or legal action, every organization inevitably confronts a similar internal tension. Communications executives and external public relations consultants advise protecting the brand by immediately explaining the entire story – the oft-used mantra is “get it all out, and get it out quickly.” At the same time, the general counsel and outside law firms preach caution, urging the organization to say as little as possible to preserve all possible arguments and avoid creating new liabilities.
Presented with these two contradicting options, CEOs face an impossible choice. Do they act quickly to defend their corporate reputation or play it safely to minimize legal risk?
In reality, any organization that expects to survive a crisis must do both. In today’s fast-moving media environment, a poorly handled public relations issue can quickly spark a lawsuit or a government investigation, just as poorly managing a legal matter can create new threats to an organization’s brand and reputation.
The difficulty for CEOs and other leaders is balancing the competing advice of consultants and advisors who look at a multi-faceted problem through one narrow lens. Advice – like so many things – often follows incentives, and both public relations professionals and lawyers have incentive to minimize risk in their areas of responsibility. Lawyers naturally worry more about the opinions of investigators than editors, just as communications executives believe a damaging story on the front page of the New York Times is far more harmful to the company’s bottom line than an angry phone call from a government agency.
So what is the leader of a company or organization facing dueling advisors in the midst of a crisis to do? Our experience in managing some of the most high-profile legal and public relations issues to hit the front pages has led us to several recommendations:
- Don’t cede decision making. A crisis response that is led by a public relations executive will always place the greatest emphasis on minimizing bad press, just as one led by a general counsel will focus most on legal risk. Each has a role, but final decisions should be made by an executive charged with considering both and making a decision in the broad interest of the organization.
- Don’t let compromise for its own sake drive strategy. Too often organizations choose a plan of action by simply compromising between attorneys and public relations advisors. They then find themselves lurching back and forth between tactics as each side grapples for influence. In the meantime, external audiences grow more and more confused by the response. Decide on a strategy and execute it.
- Maximize team strengths and minimize weaknesses. No right-thinking CEO would let a public relations executive argue a case in court, so why do so many send their lawyers out to be public spokespeople? Each profession has ingrained strengths and weaknesses – deploy your team in a way that highlights the strengths.
- Respect fear, but don’t let it guide you. It’s too easy for advisors to bang on a boardroom table and predict that the course of action they oppose will lead to ruin – either through the press or through the courtroom. Respect those opinions and accord them the proper weight, but don’t make decisions based just on fear of failure.
- Balance and quantify risks and rewards. Sometimes legal and reputational risk do come in direct conflict. When they do, map out exactly how events might unfold depending on which path you choose. If possible, assign value, including financial value, to each course before making a decision.
- Hire advisors with cross-trained skills. Most importantly, ensure you are getting the best advice by hiring professionals who can see the whole picture, and who will both recognize and balance the competing challenges the organization faces. Lawyers experienced in dealing with media crises and communications advisors who have worked in legal settings are less likely to retreat to positions that only protect their areas of responsibility. Make sure they are a part of your team.
There is no off-the-shelf plan that works in every crisis. Every issue is unique, with its own mix of legal, brand, regulatory, political and internal challenges. But the key to success is always the same: developing and executing a strategy that navigates the competing priorities that tug at an organization when times get tough. Following these recommendations will help ensure you can take that crucial first step.