During last week’s LMA NE conference, we were treated to quite a lot of high level, meaty content. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share recaps of the various sessions here, and I invite you to participate in the discussion!
First up, we have the crisis communications panel that kicked off the conference on the first evening: Crisis Communications: Out of Great Adversity Comes Great Opportunity! From the program description:
In times of despair, crisis communications must be faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive, and able to leap all law firm obstructions. Our team of ‘superhero’ panelists are armed with specific pointers on how to best handle crisis communications matters within and outside of a firm. They’ll offer how-to methods and real-life anecdotes for creating a communications plan, as well as ways to use a crisis as an opportunity to strengthen your firm. Details will be provided on how to work through the knee-jerk ‘no comment’ response law firms and lawyers are known for. Panelists will share best practices for damage control and secrets to learning from past mistakes. Arm yourself and be ready to swing into action!”
The panelists for the evening were:
- Claire Papanastasiou, Matter Communications
- Patty Wen, Boston Globe
- Doug Banks, Executive Editor, Boston Business Journal
- Ralph Martin, SVP and General Counsel, Northeastern University
- Martin Murphy, Litigation Partner, Foley Hoag
The first piece of advice that the panelists offered us involved emphasizing the importance of communication to our firm’s leadership:
By the time you hear the thunder, it’s too late to build the ark.”
Very few of those in the room raised their hands when asked if they had a crisis communications plan, and even fewer said that they had a social media component of that plan (both are essential).
Know Your Terms…And Clarify Them
We all think we know what “off the record” means, but do we really? Banks said that within the first three words of any conversation with a reporter, you’ve got to set the terms. If a reporter calls you, and you pick up the phone, it’s on the record unless it’s specifically stated otherwise. As the source, you have to ask what the difference is between “off the record” and “on background.”
Parts of the story may be on the record, based on what the reporter needs. “On background” means that it won’t be traced back to you as the source.
Wen agreed, but cautioned that the definitions of “off the record” and “on background” can vary from reporter to reporter. These determine what their next steps are. “On background” can mean that they reserve the right to put a vague identifier on the record at some point.
She added that a big pet peeve of hers is that with the increasing use of email, she’ll get information from sources that’s tagged as being “on background,” which is basically a one-sided agreement that’s being imposed on her that she never consented to.
The panelists recommended that generally sources should talk “off the record” first, and then see where that goes (and identify what that means FIRST). Most reporters would rather start there, than get a “no comment.”
The PR Crisis Hits
We looked at a hypothetical story of a crisis, based on a real scenario, culminating in a reporter calling a law firm whose lawyers were about to be indicted a few hours before releasing the story and asking them for a comment.
The panelists agreed that the best case scenario is that the firm was already aware and prepared for the reporter’s call, with a plan in place and the ability to explain the steps that they’d taken to deal with the problems in their law firm. They also agreed that the worst thing they could do is to not respond, because it makes them look guilty right away.
Wen said that she could imagine this means two possible things:
- There’s a paper trail – as the reporter, she already has the lawyer’s signatures, and has everything lined up, like a prosecutor does.- OR –
- She has a source, but doesn’t have everything lined up yet.
Typically, with such short notice, they get a “no comment” from the firm. As a reporter, she’d be pleasantly surprised to get something of substance. The first possibility in this case is the more likely one, so firms really can’t get too cute in their response. If you’d already gotten a tip, you’d vet it first to make sure it’s solid before calling the firm, because you don’t want to tip them off.
The important takeaway here is that the firm can’t kill the story – that’s not going to happen. So this may be your one shot, and you can’t NOT respond.
Martin observed that it’s also an opportunity for the firm to get information. Reporters may be being fed information by a source that’s informed, but biased. You can steer them to more objective information, if you have a good relationship with them, and you can also tease out information that may be helpful. You can sometimes put out information that is self-serving and will mitigate some of the damage.
An audience member asked what you can do about a source that has an axe to grind. Banks emphasized that it’s not a “gut” thing – you have to be able to back it up with documentation. Wen added that social media, like LinkedIn, has added another layer of due diligence for them as well. LinkedIn’s more sophisticated search capabilities allows for the finding of another (more random) sampling of current and former employees.
Banks agreed and said that on the Volkswagen story, they’d used Twitter in a similar way.
Social media makes it so much easier…You can’t really hide anymore.”
Papanastasiou agreed and pointed out that this is why firms can’t ignore social media in their crisis communication plans.
Bringing in a third party can also show the media that you’re looking to get to the bottom of a story. It makes the institution look like they’re responding. Again, it doesn’t stop the story, but it can help manage some of the internal politics as well as the media.
Sometimes, those in the firm want you to say nothing, and that can hurt you. Martin recognizes that lawyers are risk-averse, but getting out in front of the story can help. The job of leadership is to help them understand that.
Another audience member asked if there was any room on timing, in terms of responding to a story. Wen said that if they’ve invested resources into a story, then yes, if they feel that there’s cooperation and the possibility of a substantial response. But it depends on the situation. Banks added that two days is reasonable, but it depends on the request. He’d once had a company ask for three months.
It comes down to the relationship, and Banks is very cautious, as are most reporters, about having someone do an end-run around him and another media outlet breaking a story first. It’s important not to burn the relationship.
If I do’t write it right now, a competitor will get it, and I’ll lose my scoop.”
Pet Peeves when Working with PR
We’ve all got our pet peeves and reporters are no different. The reporters on the panel had their share of pains when it comes to dealing with public relations professionals.
Wen observed that reporters see PR as obstructionists, and want to get past them. She really doesn’t like that their first question is “What’s your angle?” Something about that rubs her the wrong way, and she’d prefer that it was reframed to be “What’s your focus in the story?” The former makes her feel negatively cast.
Banks said that in his position, he’s regularly hammered by PR firms in business journalism. The incoming stuff is hard – being pitched in the middle of deadlines for things that aren’t their beat is a big pet peeve. He doesn’t want to be a name on a list.
- Know their deadlines
- Know what stories they’re working on
- Don’t assume that they’re out to get you
Wen said that she’s often asked what her deadline is, which she understands, but instead of using it as a deadline, sources are using it to gauge their interest and they often ignore it. That’s frustrating. She’d rather have someone call and say that they don’t have anything to offer her, than just miss a deadline.
It’s about human relationships.”
Relationships are Key
We hear a lot about building relationships in the business development process, but not as much about building relationships in the communications arena – not surprisingly, they are just as important.
When facing difficult communications issues, Martin said that they were well-treated by the press because of how they’d dealt with them in the past. If you want to be well-represented, you have to be accessible, and you have to build a narrative over time, not just the one-off story.
It’s About the Narrative
Murphy said that on the defense side, when you’re representing someone, you make judgments on what you can say. But it’s important to remember that you have a jury pool that’s been reading, and you don’t want them to have a one-sided view.
Be out there punching so there’s another side to the story.”
“No comment” equals “we’re guilty; it’s just a matter of time.” So it’s essential to get a counter-narrative going. It’s better than saying nothing. Martin referenced an incidence where they had concerns over inflaming the Feds, so they said nothing to reporters. There was no one indicted ultimately, but there were also no apologies. When you can get your story out there, there’s a mitigating effect, and you should do it.
An audience member asked about putting out a media statement, versus having someone make personal comments. The panelists agreed that it depends on the situation. Murphy said that lawyers will want to micromanage. You may have to put out the same statement that hopefully advances your side of the story. If you have a smaller control group and you trust your public relations team, the conversation is better.
For lawyers, if they have a lot of experience talking to reporters, it’s okay to let them talk to them. But partners have to be taught how to be spokespeople with training. Murphy said that most lawyers understand the idea that “any lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client,” but most of them don’t apply that to PR. And when the story is about them, they don’t apply good judgment. So use others in the firm to help prevent self-immolation.
Banks said that if a reporter feels good about your firm, they may treat their words differently because they like you. But he added that they are training their reporters to call when the gatekeepers aren’t there – they’re not trying to get to the PR person; they’re trying to get around them.
If a PR person is doing their job, they can make it easier for reporters to get what they want though. Martin joked that firms should train their law firm leaders to use their “Scarsdale” voice after hours to disguise who they are.
An audience member asked about some of the law firm scandals in recent years, and the media perspective on those, and Banks observed that the common thread for him was that PR and marketing were the last to know anything. He always knew as much as they did, or was getting information that they didn’t have. These were difficult situation – partners were fighting, feathering their own nests, and reporters couldn’t trust what PR was telling them, because they knew that they weren’t being told the truth. In that case, he would call everyone involved to seek out the common threads.
Thanks to LMA NE and the panelists for an excellent session and a lot of food for thought. How many of you have solid crisis communications plans in place, and a strong relationship with the media?