Whether preparing to close a large deal, head into a high-profile court battle, or announce an organizational or policy shakeup, Legal and Communications departments typically meet in intense situations under extreme time pressure. It can be a recipe for conflict, but it shouldn't be. This article offers practical suggestions, based on front-line experience working side-by-side with Legal counsel, on how to foster a mutually beneficial friendship between the two disciplines.
In today's business environment, demands for corporate transparency are getting louder, information is traveling faster through more channels, and C-suites are increasingly measuring success in terms of how corporate actions, transactions and litigation outcomes are perceived by critical stakeholders, internal constituents and the wider public. More law firms and in-house legal teams are partnering with public relations professionals as PR risk, along with legal risk, is factored into every major corporate action and reaction. The public's power to influence outcomes continues to grow, and more than ever, a company's ability to act quickly and impactfully in the arena of public opinion hinges on an aligned communications strategy built on the best of what Legal and Communications bring to the table.
Lawyers and PR professionals should be joined at the hip; both teams have the same overall objective – to advance or protect the interests of the company and its shareholders. But Legal is laser-focused on reducing legal risk while the raison d'être of Communications is to safeguard and elevate perceptions of the brand, legal risk notwithstanding. These seemingly disparate approaches means a strong, collaborative partnership is not a certainty, especially when Legal and Communications are thrown together into highly confidential, rapidly evolving situations that require swift solutions, often without full information. Other inherent departmental differences such as structure, culture and process can further contribute to ineffective, vague or problematic communication outputs during change or crisis.
In our experience, the best relationships are forged with early, regular and transparent engagement, which leads to mutual trust and a stronger working relationship when the heat is on. Importantly, this approach also leads to fully informed communications and legal strategies that advance each department's goals to the benefit of the company.
Admit it: each department is a bit of an enigma to the other in terms of what it does and how it gets things done. Appreciating these key similarities and differences in roles and perspectives can improve how people with different skills and work styles communicate and collaborate:
Engaging Communications early at the legal strategy planning stage not only helps with developing a complementary communications strategy, it is also critical for proper allocation of staff and resources, depending on the size and complexity of the matter. Many times Communications is called in far too late in the timeline of an impending legal action, sometimes when there has already been some reputational damage, resulting in the scramble for damage control.
According to an August 2001 Harvard Working Knowledge article, "The better lawyers know how to not only embrace the media and use them to get the company's position front and center, but to also have PR professionals at the table with them to formulate strategy." But we've heard some lawyers express the view that communicators are too eager to divulge information. Fearing a leak or inaccurate or oversimplified publication in a press release, blog or tweet, they won't engage Communications until details are complete and disclosure is required. This approach actually limits what Communications can do to proactively mitigate reputation risk and focuses efforts instead on reactive responses which are an ineffective tactic by itself in late stages of a reputation crisis.
Historically, many attorneys have looked at PR as "publicists," and while that might have been true 30 years ago, today the value of an expert communications manager is reputation management, not promotion. That means managing – sometimes limiting rather than amplifying – what audiences read, see or hear. A good rule of thumb for when to engage Communications: the earlier the better.
It is a best practice to establish a formal structure between the two departments to identify legal matters that could damage the company's reputation. The goal is to ensure early warning of developing issues and a process to mitigate or manage them should they escalate. Quarterly meetings between representatives of the two teams can be meaningful in charting and addressing risks. Focusing a media or stakeholder prism on what may seem a trivial legal event can sometimes illuminate the potential for larger unseen issues that can set up the company for reputational problems.
It is easier and much more efficient to manage through issues, crisis and major corporate situations when working from an established framework with roles and processes already identified. Work with Communications to establish a plan for managing legal matters with potential for reputation risk. Such a plan should include at least:
When a reputation risk is identified, it becomes a matter of calling in the right people and resources to assess and/or create plans that fit the situation.
The most frequent conflicts between Legal and Communications come during messaging and content development. Disagreements over wording and style can create delays when time is already short. This is because lawyers and communicators are all masters of language. The language of the law and the complexity of legal processes, however, often create a large risk of misinterpretation or misunderstanding when placed in a non-legal context. A well-crafted legal filing or a technically positive legal outcome might cause confusion and misunderstanding when viewed by the press and public, and similarly a well-written news release could fall flat with judge and jury. Early engagement, again, is the best prescription here. Legal can alert Communications to terms and methods of communications that could impact legal strategy, have legal consequences, or create corporate risk. With this knowledge, Communications can be more mindful of perilous language or tactics when creating audience-facing messaging, content and distribution strategy, thereby reducing potential discord during legal review.
Collaboration is even more crucial today with technology rewriting the rules of audience engagement. Audiences no longer wait for companies to publish or broadcast information; they get it on-demand from third party online resources or their own communities. Social media and mobile innovations have created the expectation that companies communicate with their audiences and respond to damaging claims within hours or even minutes of tweets, blog postings, and the like.
This new pace of communications becomes a source of friction when the traditional process of vetting all outgoing communications through Legal is imposed on new media management. Modifying internal processes to accommodate new realities is one step, but overall, Legal and Communications must develop ongoing dialogue and a greater degree of trust so the efficacy of new media communications is not bogged down by internal policy and process.
The relationship between Legal and Communications is most tested in the throes of a reputational crisis – for example, when allegations are lodged against the company's actions, products or people. Traditionally, Legal departments have directed a low profile or approved only measured responses to avoid exacerbating the situation or to avoid the legal risk of premature statements. The problem with this turn-the-other-cheek approach is that audiences can and will draw their own conclusions about the situation in the absence of other positioning. A company can come out of a crisis with no legal problems, but the company's reputation can be so damaged that it will actually cost the company more to rebuild trust and goodwill in the marketplace. Faced with the prospect of a public flogging at the hands of the media, trial lawyers, or publicity-seeking activists, more companies are rethinking that approach.
When does it make sense for Legal to support a more aggressive communications strategy in a reputational crisis? My colleague, Chris Gidez, global practice leader of our Risk Management and Crisis Communications group who has collaborated with many lawyers in his 25+ years as a crisis and reputation counselor, suggests these criteria:
With sufficient time and information, a Communications team can help legal counsel succeed by helping to develop and execute a strong communications strategy that preempts, balances or neutralizes an opponent's commentary or public relations strategy.
Early planning, transparency and engagement can help Communications and Legal teams set a media and public landscape that is more likely to foster favorable public attitudes, perceptions, and opinions toward the company's legal and public position. When reputations are at risk, it's good to have friends to lean on for support.
Geri Ann S. Baptista is a Vice President in the Seattle office of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, a global strategic communications firm with 84 offices in 46 countries. Ms. Baptista leads the Seattle Corporate Communications group and manages development of the office's Legal, Corporate Advisory, Sustainability, and Change & Internal Communications practice areas. She has been a litigator and trial attorney in Washington and Hawaii since 1994, supporting corporate clients of Lane Powell, Cairncross & Hempelmann, and Dorsey & Whitney until shifting to a strategic communications role. Before joining H+K Strategies, Ms. Baptista held in-house corporate communications positions at Washington Mutual Bank, Premera Blue Cross and Starbucks Coffee Company where she worked closely and happily with her colleagues in the legal departments. She can be reached at GeriAnn.Baptista@HKStrategies.com