Where Lawyers Fall Short During a Public Relations Crisis
For as long as I’ve been in the crisis management industry, I’ve told people, “you hire a lawyer to make sure you don’t get sued. You hire me (or someone like me) to make sure people still like you when your controversy is over.”
Most leaders have no problem hiring lawyers—they quickly see their value when a crisis ensues and rarely question their recommendations. Yet lawyers are the least qualified group of professionals to truly help you navigate and, most importantly, recover from a public crisis. Here’s why:
- Lawyers are rarely focused on preserving your reputation
- Lawyers are trained to work with the law – not your brand
- Lawyers are too fact-based and rule-based
This doesn’t mean that lawyers don’t have value during public relations crises. When your business is facing a crisis, there are many factors you have to consider to mitigate damage and make it out unscathed. Lawyers excel at law but fall short elsewhere, and that’s where reputation experts come in. Boeing learned firsthand how valuable it is to have a crisis specialist during periods of negative publicity. When the stakes are high, you need someone in your corner with expertise in crisis management.
Reason #1: Lawyers Focus on the Win, Not Preserving Your Reputation
Lawyers have a stake in the outcome of the crisis, and their chief motivation is winning the case or simply not losing it. Whether you’ve made a misstep or are the victim of a smear campaign, their primary concern is keeping you out of prison or preventing you from paying a giant settlement. Lawyers are experts at interpreting the law and delivering advice based on rules and regulations, but their scope is limited. Important and necessary? Absolutely. However, this also means you’re putting the fate of your company into the hands of law experts who have a laser-like, tunnel-vision focus on the bottom line. Although useful at times, this mindset neglects to account for the perceptions of your brand or your career after the dust settles.
It’s too easy for lawyers to forget the human factor in the equation and how their positioning will resonate with the public. Not only is the reputation of your company at stake when a crisis hits, but your personal and professional reputation is at risk of being dragged through the mud as well. Reputation experts take a more holistic approach by learning how your business operates. They provide advice that protects your brand in the eyes of your customers and have more flexibility to pivot based on developing circumstances.
Reason #2: Lawyers Aren’t Trained to Convey Your Brand to Your Audience
Lawyers are rarely equipped to consider the nuances of your brand or make recommendations in the context of your audience’s most pressing concerns. Even if they can do so, their work will still fall short compared to a dedicated public relations crisis manager.
Because their goal is to avoid guilty verdicts or judgments against you, they use their skills accordingly. Even if they have good intentions, “lawyer language” is historically riddled with corporate speak and legalese, resulting in completely tone-deaf responses at times. Yes, they are human, and they know how to be authentic. But let’s face it: Lawyers spend their days talking to judges and citing precedents, not crafting carefully worded messages to irate customers or constituents. Your social media response can’t be the length of legal documents. It can’t contain verbiage that only a judge would understand. That’s where experts in reputation and communication come in.
Reason #3: Lawyers Focus on Facts and Rules, Not Emotions
Lawyers defend for a living. When employing a defense through the eyes of the law, your audience could equate this to defensiveness, which is the last thing you want to be perceived as when handling a public crisis. Lawyers are trained to operate logically and based on past legal precedents. This characteristic is very valuable when lawsuits or legal violations threaten your business, but can be detrimental to your brand, as they rarely consider unique circumstances.
There’s no denying that the facts are important, and lawyers can help you craft them in a way that limits liability. However, if your only goal is to not look guilty, you could end up looking cold, disingenuous, and causing long-term damage to your (and your company’s) reputation like Facebook’s data scandal in 2018. Crises are almost always emotional events. When emotion is involved, it’s important to fight fire with fire by focusing on the emotional side of the crisis with your audience. This doesn’t mean you should lie or misinform, but instead, focus on the explanation and what you’re going to do about the crisis to make it right. The best thing you can do when addressing the public with a statement is start with the elephant in the room. Forget about setting any kind of stage or background—that can come later. Even if the background facts prove you did nothing wrong, you need to offer them in the context of your audience’s concerns first—not yours. “Proving your innocence” is a valuable aspect of crisis management and is what lawyers excel at accomplishing. However, this type of language is best employed in the courtroom, not in press releases or social media statements.
How to Manage Your Reputation Through Collaboration
Although they often have deficiencies in public relations and crisis management, lawyers still play an important role and can be a valuable supplement to your PR team. A common pitfall of inexperienced crisis communicators is their inability to balance disclosure, speed, and accuracy. If they aren’t careful, communicators can sometimes be too transparent and disclose information that leads to further liability. Additionally, inexperienced crisis communicators will act too quickly and provide misleading information in the interest of a speedy response. Although these are legitimate concerns, skilled reputation managers are aware of this and take the necessary precautions to prevent this from occurring.
The bottom line: Lawyers and communicators both play a role during a crisis, but your public relations team should spearhead your company’s response. Let your lawyers focus on the law while you (and hopefully your skilled communications team) focus on public relations. At TruPerception, we have the experience of both lawyers and communicators, and we’re always deliberate in our crisis response action plan. If you’re looking for reputation experts, we’ve resolved countless crises in a wide variety of industries without ever needing to pull in legal counsel. For instances that require lawyers, we work seamlessly with your legal team while managing your crisis response efforts. Contact us today to learn more and get started, we can’t wait to hear from you.