Public Relations and Legal Collaboration during Crisis Situations

Understanding the Dynamics between Lawyers and PR Professionals

In times of crisis, lawyers and public relations (PR) professionals often find themselves working side by side. However, their different approaches and perspectives can sometimes create tensions. It is crucial to recognize and appreciate these differences to ensure a successful crisis response. By addressing these disparities directly, a harmonious collaboration can be achieved, which can significantly impact the outcome of the crisis.

The Cautiousness of Lawyers versus the Communication Focus of PR Professionals

Lawyers are trained to be cautious, preferring to let the legal system take its course. On the other hand, PR professionals are natural communicators, striving to maintain relationships with various stakeholders such as customers, employees, vendors, neighbors, and the media.

The attorney-PR relationship used to be more strained in the past. However, more attorneys now recognize that by the time the legal process concludes, a company’s reputation may already be irreparably damaged. Time is of the essence in crisis situations, and PR professionals understand the urgency to communicate effectively, empathize with emotions, and protect the organization’s image.

Coordinating Legal and Communications Responses

Most crises involve legal implications, particularly when litigation arises from incidents such as facility fires or earnings restatements. However, while the legal and communications responses need to be coordinated, they cannot follow the same approach. Lawyers rely on logic and legal precedents to win their cases, but in a crisis, emotions often take center stage.

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James F. Haggerty, the founder of CrisisResponsePro, highlights this distinction in his book, Chief Crisis Officer. He emphasizes that the traditional “lawyer-like” response, although well-intentioned, can sometimes exacerbate the crisis situation rather than alleviate it.

Concise Messaging in Crisis Communications

Lawyers tend to cover all angles in their arguments to maximize their chances of winning. However, crisis communications cannot afford to be lengthy and convoluted like a legal brief. PR professionals must distill the messages to their essence, focusing on the heart of the matter.

To illustrate the potential harm of a legal strategy on a communications strategy, let’s consider two cases: Tracy Morgan’s lawsuit against Walmart and a bias suit involving Saks Fifth Avenue. In Morgan’s case, Walmart’s legal defense mentioned his failure to wear a seatbelt as a contributing factor. The media seized upon this detail, damaging Walmart’s image. Similarly, Saks Fifth Avenue’s legal argument against a transgender ex-employee’s discrimination claim drew negative media attention. These examples demonstrate how a mismatch between legal and communications strategies can backfire.

Collaboration for Successful Crisis Management

Rather than lamenting these inherent discrepancies, it is essential to comprehend and embrace them. Lawyers and PR professionals need to work together seamlessly to address crises effectively. By leveraging their respective expertise, they can navigate the legal complexities while ensuring clear and empathetic communication.

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