‘FT’ Delves Into the Lawyer-Communicator Relationship

Thom Weidlich 05.23.19


The Financial Times had a recent column discussing the always-interesting topic of the relationship between communicators and lawyers in a crisis. Communicators wanna communicate; lawyers wanna lawyer. The problem is when the lawyering gets in the way of the communicating and the communicating gets in the way of the lawyering.

The occasion for the May 21 column by Contributing Editor Michael Skapinker was a panel on crisis management he chaired the previous week.

According to Skapinker, a major part of the discussion was the need to not let lawyers prevent “the company from saying or doing the right thing” in terms of showing empathy and apologizing. Headline of the column: “Lawyers Should Not Rewrite Crisis Communications.”

The attorney/PR professional dance is always a little stumbly (we’ve written on the relationship before). Lawyers tend to be risk-averse and concerned about legal liability. The communicators’ response to this stance is that a major hit to a company’s reputation (or stock price) can be much worse than a courtroom loss; also, there’s nothing quite so bland as a lawyered-up statement.

On the other hand, a multibillion jury award is nothing to sneeze at. There can also be the issue of losing insurance coverage by admitting liability.

Skapinker mentioned one solution to this challenge: crisis training. It simply helps to decide in advance what the company can say in response to a particular crisis type. Of course, the details of the event when it hits will influence the language, but it helps to hash out some of this ahead of time.

737 Max

Certainly, Boeing’s massive crisis with its now-grounded 737 Max planes is partly due to cautiousness in speaking out, most likely influenced by litigation fears. We suspect a similar motive in Fisher-Price’s recent crisis over its Rock ’n Play Sleeper.

Skapinker mentioned an interesting article published last July on the subject by Keith Ruddock, a former attorney with Shell and Glasgow-based Weir Group. “Adopting too legalistic an approach may lead to response paralysis and increase negative reputational impact,” Ruddock wrote. “Yet too light a touch may create major future legal exposures.”

Still, he comes out on the side of lawyers being more practical than legalistic. And he sees advantages in the two cultures, legal and PR, working together. “Creative tension between the legal and comms teams is healthy — recognizing the need to respond quickly but not in a way that will foreclose any other options in the future,” he writes.

Maybe that’s the answer: You need the best of both worlds.

Photo Credit: Fizkes/Shutterstock

This is an abridged version of an article that appeared today on the CrisisResponsePro paid subscription portal. (CrisisResponsePro subscribers can access the full version by clicking here. ID and password are required.) To take advantage of all of the content, data, and collaborative resources CrisisResponsePro has to offer, contact us at signup@crisisresponsepro.com.