Canadian businesses ought to realize that when it comes to “bet the company” situations, not only do they need to do battle in the court of law; they also need to do battle in the court of public opinion!
As a result, lawyers often find themselves working alongside public relations practitioners.
Admittedly, these two professions tend to approach a crisis—or a major business transaction—from different perspectives:
- The lawyer will want to say the least possible—the proverbial “no comment”—whereas the public relations professional will consider a “no comment” tantamount to an admission of liability.
- The public relations professional may see the lawyer as a “roadblock” who is overly focused on liability, while the lawyer may see the public relations professional as a “promoter”.
However, these caricatures should not get in the way of positive collaboration. In fact, lawyers and public relations professionals have much in common:
- Both are trained wordsmiths: Words are the tools of their trades.
- Both are trained to anticipate worst-case scenarios.
- Both serve as trusted advisors, called upon at critical times in the life of a company.
Lawyers and public relations professionals complement one another
In this age of social media and 24/7 news coverage, when anyone with a smartphone is a “journalist”, clients are best served by working with both these types of advisors. Lawyers and public relations professionals offer complementary viewpoints, ensuring that no key stakeholder is ignored.
If your company is sued, you will have to engage a lawyer to shepherd the case through the courts—a process that can sometimes take years. In the meantime, you must not neglect your firm’s reputation—and that’s where the public relations professional can play an essential role. After all, a company with a damaged reputation might not remain in business long enough to see its day in court!
“The court of public opinion moves much faster than the law.” ― T.E. Carter
In addition to lawsuits, businesses encounter all sorts of crises or unexpected events. Although management surely has legal counsel on speed dial for such situations, nowadays the first call often goes out to public relations counsel.
When news is breaking, journalists, employees, government officials and other stakeholders want information immediately—even if management is still learning what happened. While it may seem safer to say nothing until you have fully assessed the situation, a quick response pays dividends in terms of reputation management.
It is perfectly acceptable to issue a holding statement, stating that you do not yet have all the facts; that you are investigating; and that you will report back once you know more. At these initial stages, opinions and rumours abound; facts are at a premium. The longer you wait to make a public statement, the less you control the messaging and the greater the risk that speculation and rumours will fill the void.
For instance, if someone has been hurt, you can surely express compassion, whether you know all the facts or not. A properly crafted expression of sympathy is not an admission of liability.
A statement in “legalese” will not win fans among your stakeholders, and even less so among the general public, especially in times of crisis. The public relations specialist will help you craft a message that is authentic, measured and mindful of the circumstances. Yet that does not mean the lawyer should not play an important role. After all, each word in your messaging has legal repercussions and should be reviewed by legal counsel.
The communications process functions best when public relations professionals and lawyers work side by side, from the outset, toward the common goal of protecting the client’s reputation—in both the court of public opinion and the court of law.
In dire circumstances, an effective communications strategy maintains—and sometimes even enhances—public trust in your business.
Legal strategy and public relations strategy are complementary instruments from the same toolbox, especially when lawyers and public relations professionals work together—like “two peas in a pod”!
The author is a lawyer who serves as Senior Director, Financial Communications at NATIONAL Public Relations.