YourABA July 2012 Masthead

Crisis communications: What to say
when media come knocking

Crisis and litigation are inevitable in today's world. “To be in business in the 21st century is to be in crisis,” says Gene Grabowski, an executive vice president at Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis-management firm in Washington, D.C.

Planning for crises is where firms often go wrong. “Even if you have a crisis plan on the shelf, it's implementing those plans and foreseeing issues that might be on the horizon where most companies run into problems,” says Derede McAlpin, a lawyer and vice president at Levick.

The basis of any plan must be an understanding of how to advance your interests in the goals of the litigation, says McAlpin in the ABA CLE “Crisis Happens! Incorporating a Crisis Communications Plan in Your Litigation Strategy.”

“Let's say there's a mine explosion,” she says. “The first question is, Why did this happen, and who has been affected by it? In trying to answer this question, [reporters] will be looking for answers and looking for answers quickly.”

Saying “no comment” turns your client into the villain and only makes the client
look guilty.

If you're working with a team that doesn't have someone available to address media inquiries, you might be inclined to say “no comment.” But this only turns your client into the villain. “Saying no comment only makes you look guilty,” Grabowski says. “There are almost no times today when you can get away with no comment. You have to talk about what you're doing to fix the problem.”

There are three elements of an ideal response during an emergency, McAlpin says.

  • The client should show its concern. “If it's a mine explosion, you say you're concerned about the victims and about the safety measures,” she says.
  • The client should show its commitment. “That's where a company would have an opportunity to present its value proposition: to say, We're concerned about safety here, and we're doing everything we can to keep employees safe. We have X, Y and Z in place to make sure our employees are safe,” McAlpin says.
  • The client should take action. “You talk about your next step, even if it's not a way to resolve the problem,” she says. “You can put out messages and language that you're taking corrective action.”

McAlpin says firms should aim to think like a consumer. “You have to have your messaging directly tied to resonate and relate to the consumer audience you're trying to reach,” she says. “At the onset of a crisis issue or litigation, we'll sit down with a client and say, ‘Give us a list of everyone who's affected by this issue,' and then draft messaging that's tied toward each individual. One of the top mistakes a company might make is putting something out there that looks too much like corporate speak. It looks like the company is not concerned about the cause and is just trying to make the issue go away in the news media.”

In your messaging, less detail is better, Grabowski says. Be concise. “Define what the issue is,” he says. “Don't complain because you are being picked on. Don't say that the media is getting it wrong. Don't talk about what consumers need to understand. Define what the case is about in simple, short sentences that get to the point.”

Another mistake companies make is putting out messages too slowly. “Speed is vital,” Grabowski says. “We have to present the messages quickly, first or second day, with the best information we can, even if we have incomplete information. Provide frequent updates about the steps you're taking.”

Speed is especially important if your firm anticipates that a case might be picked up by the media, McAlpin says. This is a situation in which bloggers can be useful. “I use blogs as an early-warning system,” she says. “If an issue is out there, you want to get it while the ember is just starting to spark. If you catch an issue and then start crafting your message and how you're going to respond, then you'll be ahead of the news cycle.”

Deploy your allies to enhance your credibility, Grabowski says. “You're marginally credible when you're speaking in defense of yourself, but when your allies speak about you, they carry a lot more credibility and trust in terms of consumers.”

You can use allies before a case has even been filed, McAlpin adds. “Find third parties that can speak on your behalf,” she says. “It could be someone in an association or an expert you're not going to use at trial who could advance your case in the court of public opinion.”

Leverage those messages, especially when allies have blogs or prominent Facebook pages, and consider using video, Grabowski says. Video content often goes to the top of the search engines pretty quickly, and it's an ideal way to get a response out to the public to tell your client's side of the story, McAlpin adds. If your CEO or best spokesperson is media trained, create a video and use the clip “as a way to raise the prominence of your statement or website online,” she says.

Always keep in mind the audience when choosing a spokesperson, McAlpin says. For example, if you're dealing with a baby product, “it might be better to have a mom speak out,” she says. “Make sure it's someone who is able to connect with the audience, who looks credible.”

For more on crisis communications, listen to the CLE here.

This program was presented by the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division; the Business Law Section; the Law Practice Management Section; the Section of Litigation; and the Section of Environment, Energy and Resources.

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