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Vol. 35, No. 2

Crisis Communications Tips

by Marilyn Cavicchia

As an executive director, it can be very reassuring to know you have a crisis plan in place—and a capable communications staff person who can help guide you through a potential media emergency.

That’s according to Jane Schoenike, executive director at the Nebraska State Bar Association. Schoenike and Bonnie Sashin, communications director at the Boston Bar Association, shared some tips on crisis communication at the NABE Communications Section Workshop in Portland, Maine, this past October.

If you’re the communications director, Sashin said, you need to “learn how to ask tough questions in a gentle voice.” Nothing is served, she explained, if the communications director comes across as threatening, judgmental, or overly anxious. A calm, neutral tone goes a long way toward calming others down and keeping the focus on finding the best way to address the crisis.

One of the first questions a communications director should ask when confronted with a potentially troubling piece of news, Sashin said, is, “ ‘Have you thought about how to communicate that?’ ” It is not enough, she noted, to simply hope the bad news doesn’t get into the local paper or on social media. Instead, she said, the bar needs to make an informed decision regarding whether to confront the crisis head-on—and, if so, how.

Along with the communications director and executive director, the people included in these initial discussions might vary depending on the particular crisis and mix of personalities and strengths, Schoenike and Sashin said. Besides the president, there may be other staff members and elected leaders—such as the president-elect or particular members of the executive committee—who should be included right away.

This small group of perhaps five or six people will then determine how best to communicate with the various audiences who need information—including not only the public (perhaps via the media), but also the wider circles of leadership and the membership as a whole.

Sashin and Schoenike looked at three different hypothetical crises and how a bar association might handle each one. You can’t possibly prepare for every crisis that might require a communications response, they noted—but you can think in advance about some possible scenarios and develop a general plan that will be on file if and when you need it.

A change at the top

In situations involving the departure of a management-level employee, Sashin said, it’s very important to communicate this in a way that it respectful toward that person. You might consider drafting a press release that says the person left to pursue other opportunities, and that lists a few of his or her accomplishments while at the bar. Your message would then announce that the bar is in good hands; if there’s someone assuming that role in an “acting” capacity, give that person’s name. You would then convey that there’s a solid plan in place for finding a replacement (if you’re using a search firm, you might mention that), and that you’ll be in touch again once a successor is named.

Being this direct and this courteous toward the departing manager can greatly minimize the unwanted coverage you might otherwise receive from business- and law-related publications, Sashin noted.

As for the audiences within the bar, Schoenike said that while it’s certainly important to inform the full membership, you might be surprised to find that “There’s a lot of the membership who isn’t going to know or care” what’s going on at the upper echelons. “Bar groupies”—those who participate heavily in various committees and activities—will care, she noted, and will appreciate that you have reached out to them and to the full membership regarding the personnel change.

Another key audience, Sashin noted, is the staff. Consider holding an all-staff meeting or communicating with the full staff through some other means, in order to reassure them that business will continue as usual.

A criminal charge

What if a leader who is in line for the presidency is charged with a crime? This would likely be a big story in your state, Schoenike said, and the bar’s integrity could be called into question because the accused is someone your bar either selected or elected to lead it. A “no comment” in this instance could be disastrous, she believes.

Take your time—but not too much time—in deciding what to say, Schoenike suggested. Is the timing such that you can have a fairly long meeting on a Saturday with your small group, and then have a release ready to go on Monday morning? The main points of such a release, Schoenike and Sashin said, would be that the bar takes the allegations very seriously and is confident in the legal process.

Especially in such a hot-button crisis, Sashin said, there can be tension between the need to get the information out quickly and the need to have a good number of key leaders see it before it’s released. One idea, Schoenike said, might be to convene the small group to actually craft a statement but then let a larger group see it before it’s released. The bar’s officers will certainly need to see such a statement, she said, but you should also consider the executive committee or other such group that is right below or beyond the officer level.

Think in terms of “concentric circles of information,” she advised: Who needs to know first? Second? Third? A crisis like this tends to have a “ripple effect” through the whole organization, she said, and the bar should have a solid plan for how to get the information to different levels of leaders and members.

“It’s so important to have someone who can guide you through the type of language you want to use,” Schoenike said. In your communication with members and then with the media, certain phrases should be avoided even if they are legally and factually correct. Sashin noted that she might write that the bar is “deeply troubled” by the situation but would not express the bar’s concern for “the victim”—since this would presume guilt. Inserting “alleged” doesn’t help, an audience member pointed out; Sashin agreed and said that even though this is the correct term, it will look as if the bar is casting aspersions on the validity of the charges.

Sashin would also avoid pointing out that the person who was charged is innocent until proven guilty. Again, this is factually true but might make the bar look defensive and also disrespectful toward the complaining witness. It’s much better, she reiterated, to simply say that the bar trusts the legal process in this instance and in general.

But whatever information you provide to members of the media, Schoenike said, it is likely that you will face questions at some point regarding how potential leaders are vetted and how this particular leader was chosen. Sashin agreed that this situation doesn’t have a quick fix in terms of completely quelling any potentially negative media attention.

How your bar fares in such a crisis depends in no small part on the reputation, trust, and credibility you’ve already built with the public and the media over a long period of time, she said. Sashin believes this type of sustained effort is ultimately more helpful—in normal times as well as during a crisis—than quick-hit “image of lawyers” campaigns.

A lapse in compliance

If a member of the media calls the executive director questioning whether the bar association may have breached a state or federal regulation, what should the E.D. do?

Sashin’s advice was that he or she talk to the communications director to draft a brief statement saying the bar takes such matters seriously and makes diligent efforts to ensure compliance. Then, she added, she would have the E.D. e-mail the statement, with the subject line “responding to your phone call.” Responding by phone might be too stressful, she explained, and the E.D. might be goaded into meandering from the simple statement.

If the lapse involves something perhaps not being on file when it should be, don’t blame the office of some public official even if you’re sure the bar filed appropriately, Sashin advised. Instead, just say that if there was a glitch, it will be fixed.

This is certainly a less intense situation than if a leader is charged with a crime, but it still deserves a response. “Board members care very, very deeply about their reputation,” Sashin noted, and would never want anyone to think the bar was sloppy or neglectful. Not responding to a media inquiry, she said, would only feed the story and put your bar on center stage.

You might learn of this type of lapse, or even litigation involving the bar, in an indirect way, Sashin said, such as from a member. One tool that can help you monitor what’s being said about the bar and respond to any misinformation if necessary is Google alerts. This free service will let you know anytime the bar’s name is mentioned online, Sashin explained, noting that the service is now also combing Twitter for such mentions as well.

Seek outside help when needed

Even though the communications director is a great resource and an important partner to the executive director and officers, it is very important that professional confidence not veer into arrogance, Sashin said. In a crisis, the communications director should share a few different scenarios of how things might play out. He or she should then give advice—but, Sashin added—should also note that there are professional crisis communicators available and that one can and should be brought in if the E.D. or the officers believe the situation warrants it.

When you’re not in crisis mode, Schoenike suggested, see if you can locate one or two crisis communicators in your area. Add their information to your Rolodex, with a sticky note for good measure, she advised. You may never need to call on these experts, Schoenike said, but if a crisis hits and you need some outside guidance, you’ll be very glad to have the information on file.