How to balance PR and legal concerns in a crisis

These crucial teams can find themselves at loggerheads, but their collaboration is essential for navigating through a crisis.

Weight Scale, Balance, Scale.

Legal and public relations (PR) professionals often collaborate during times of crisis, making it crucial for the two to work in harmony when serving a client.

The reality is that crises do not discriminate against the types of entities they harm, and the resulting legal and reputational damages are difficult to forecast. To that end, organizations can, and should, stay ahead of a crisis by formulating comprehensive response plans under the guidance of legal and PR practitioners who are experts at protecting clients through communication.

Creating and navigating an effective crisis communications plan requires finding the right balance between legal and PR priorities which can pose challenges. A common misconception is that PR professionals are too quick to publicly admit fault and apologize, whereas legal professionals too often stonewall the public. In reality, many companies have found success with compatible legal and PR teams—and have mitigated disastrous crisis outcomes.

Here are practical considerations that every legal or PR specialist should share with their counterpart when working with the same client on developing a successful crisis communications strategy:

Legal pros’ advice to PR pros

Always seek input from legal. Whether it’s a holding statement or FAQ sheet, all prepared crisis communications should ideally have input and approval from the client’s legal team. Accidentally disclosing sensitive information or misstating facts can expose a client to legal trouble that can ultimately force them out of business. Alleviating the legal risks associated with an inappropriate or unapproved crisis response is just as important as reducing a client’s reputational risks following a crisis.

Attorney-client privilege is not guaranteed. The ruling on whether PR professionals—even those that are licensed attorneys—are protected by attorney-client privilege is not always clear. For context, attorney-client privilege protects confidential communications intended as legal advice between a client and their attorney.

Typically, the presence of a third party to an otherwise privileged communication will waive privilege. An exception applies when either the third-party (here, the PR professional) is assisting the client’s legal counsel in rendering legal advice to the client, or the PR professional is so deeply integrated in the client’s work that they are the functional equivalent of a corporate employee.

While the issue of privilege is generally decided on a case-by-case basis, there’s confidence in the protection of communications among cooperative and organized teams. Offering meaningful and expert advice to a client’s lawyers when approaching a communications crisis arguably warrants privilege when the PR consultant’s contributions are reasonably helpful to the lawyer’s legal strategy for the client.

Additionally, courts are more inclined to protect PR professionals that serve as a client’s primary communications authority as opposed to those that intermittently contribute to projects largely designed and finalized by the client themselves.

Therefore, PR professionals should be cognizant of the types of information being shared when communicating with or about a client because privilege can be tricky.

PR pros’ advice to legal pros

Control the narrative. The timing of a response is crucial to saving a company’s reputation. The advancement of technology and social media has created a ubiquitous platform that can work for or against a client following a crisis. Therefore, the quicker a company reacts with well-prepared and approved statements, the smaller the chance that the media will write a potentially misinformed and inaccurate story that hurts the company’s brand.

Look beyond black letter law. Effective crisis communications should not be restricted by every suspicion of a legal risk. The point of crisis communications is to preserve a client’s image, and the best way to do so is by having a client be transparent through mindful and humanizing statements. This strategic approach has a greater chance of resonating with audiences and maintaining their trust than ambiguous and defensive messaging. Remember, showing empathy and expressing humility does not equate to admitting defeat or guilt.

At the end of the day, legal and PR practitioners share the same objective: to protect the client’s interests. While limiting a client’s crisis response can reduce future legal consequences, it’s important to remember that there is value in a sincere and compassionate response.

That said, both legal and PR professionals need to strike a balance of trust when working together in preparation for a client’s next crisis.

Richard Chen is an associate consultant with APCO Worldwide.

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