Today’s fast-moving digital climate means that legal teams must quickly cope with disruptive events that threaten to harm the interests of their clients. When your clients have a crisis management plan, they are better prepared to anticipate and proactively handle whatever challenges the future may hold. A vital component of a crisis management plan is a robust communications strategy, knowing what to say to who, when, and why.
There are three fundamental principles to keep in mind when helping your clients develop a communications strategy:
- LEAD, don’t manage a crisis
- Behavior and actions drive perception
- Ownership, values, and authenticity count
During a crisis, you are not in control, and most often, the levers of power are on the opposing side. During the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP was far from in control. A live camera from the ocean floor was steaming online around the clock as a reminder of the devastating event that had taken place. BP’s only weapon was their behavior. They quickly issued an apology and assumed ownership for their actions; they promptly set up a remediation fund and deployed thousands of employees and their executive leadership team to the field. BP owned this tragedy from start to finish. Stakeholders such as area residents will say BP did the right thing. Although you cannot make lemonade from apples, you can lead by making apple juice.
- BUILD crisis muscle
- Assess your vulnerabilities and train often
- Have a crisis communications infrastructure in place
You would not run a marathon or complete an Ironman without training; why would you tackle a crisis without being prepared? Organizations need to take the time to assess vulnerabilities and plan responses ahead of time. It is equally as essential to have the necessary communications infrastructure in place so that you do not waste time when a crisis occurs. Know who your decision-makers are, how to contact them, and what you are communicating. Have contact information for your communications team, human resources, general counsel, security, and those you would need to contact on hand. In 2018, a Boston-based technology services firm experienced a significant system outage. This firm did not have a way to quickly communicate with their clients, which led to a lack of trust and a 15% decline in service contract renewals. By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.
- KNOW your environment
- Know the media landscape
- Know your audience
News and social media are more combustible and move faster than they ever have. It is imperative to calibrate your communications strategy to your environment. Surveys show record levels of mistrust in corporations, governments, and institutions. You must know your audience, have established relationships with the media and key influencers, and have a sense of prioritization. In the wake of the 2017 Equifax data breach, Equifax focused their communications on regulatory authorities instead of their key stakeholders, their customers.
There are no questions that communicating with regulatory authorities was necessary, but the primary audience was the customer. Equifax failed to disclose to its customers timely and sensitively that the breach was secured, what exposure they faced, and how Equifax would defend and protect them. In an environment where everyone with an opinion has a bullhorn, keep the opinions in your favor.
When faced with a crisis, organizations depend on attorneys with the judgment, skills, relationships, and experience to provide an integrated approach to leading the crisis. This legal team must develop a strategy that addresses all aspects of the matter – civil litigation, investigations, media and investor scrutiny, and the long-term business impact. Warren Buffet once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and just 5 minutes to ruin it.”