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May 20, 2024 Vol. 46, No. 5

Speaking Out or Staying Silent: A Guide to Creating Communications Plans for Bars

By Nick Hansen

“If you can see it coming, it’s not a crisis,” said Bruce Hennes, CEO of Hennes Communications, to audience members at his 2024 Bar Leadership Institute workshop “Speaking Out or Strategic Silence? Organizational Approaches to Issuing Public Statements.”

Hennes, along with Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association (CMBA) CEO Becky Ruppert McMahon, explained why it is important for bars to develop a communications plan for when a rapid response is needed, as well as when bars want to proactively comment on a situation. 

Why Have a Plan?

Hennes, who has nearly 40 years’ experience in the communications field and is the public member of the CMBA board, shared the reality of today’s media landscape: “The only thing that counts is the speed of your reply.” With the ubiquity of social media, and a trend towards iterative journalism, it is imperative to get your side of the story out quickly. “Generally speaking, whoever goes first determines the trajectory of the story,” said Hennes. 

And when your bar is asked to take a position on a public issue, having a set plan in place can bolster your bar’s reputation, as well as allay member concerns that bars aren’t listening to their members. “We believe that we have to have a policy. We have to have a thoughtful process that is a defensible process, and that is used consistently time after time after time as we consider what we're going to say and when we're going to say it,” said McMahon. 

Where to Start?

Bars can start making a communications response plan by convening a meeting with volunteer leaders and key staff members. Ask everyone to share their potential “worst nightmare” situations for the bar. These could be responding to an inappropriate social media post from a prominent lawyer, allegations of corruption in the legal community, or even an IT security incident. When thinking about your bar’s responses to these scenarios, keep these questions in mind, “What do you say? Who do you say it to? How, when, and where do you say it?

Get all the potential situations all written down and start to triage the situations to ones that are most likely to happen. Hennes said that for the sake of time, most bars will only need about 12 to 15 prepared statements. Bars should then write up statements responding to these potential scenarios—while adding details specific to the situation as the events warrant. In addition to public messages, bars should also develop messages aimed at their membership. This prevents bars from scrambling when a reporter calls requesting comment or getting an angry phone call from a member, because the statements have all been preapproved. 

Having a prepared, preapproved statement can help protect your bar’s reputation.  “Our clients are practically bulletproof from the criticisms that they're getting from the outside because they got their side of the story out to the people whose opinions they care about the most,” said Hennes. 

Issuing a Proactive Statement

While Hennes discussed crisis response communications, McMahon discussed situations where a response isn’t needed immediately. McMahon said that one goal for the CMBA was to become the “go-to organization on matters of law and justice” in the region. 

The CMBA created the Thought Leadership Committee, which is responsible for evaluating requests for public positions, as well as proactively identifying issues that the CMBA should comment on and build its programming around. The committee has 15 members.  

When a potential issue comes up, the committee has three criteria that determines whether the bar should weigh in:

  • Does this impact the practice of law or the legal profession?
  • Does this issue affect the independence or integrity of the judiciary?
  • Does this impact the effectiveness or accessibility of the legal system?

There is also a fourth question for unique situations where a response might be warranted – Would speaking out be consistent with our mission? McMahon noted that the CMBA recently used these criteria to take a position on Issue 1, which was a special election whether to change the state Constitution to require a supermajority for changes. 

If the issue does impact the practice of law or the legal profession, the thought leadership committee continues with two other steps: 

  • Does speaking out further the interest of the CMBA?
  • Will a vast majority of our members agree with the position?

McMahon admitted that finding a ‘vast majority’ was not an exact science, but through member surveys, discussions with sections and committees, and board representation, she believes they are able to take an accurate pulse of the membership regarding statements. 

Since 2018, the CMBA has issued 24 public statements, and they have declined in 13 instances to issue formal positions. And even if the CMBA doesn’t have an official position, McMahon stated that the bar can still be a thought leader by holding programs or convening public conversations to help educate the community on the given topic. 

After the bar issued a statement on Issue 1, McMahon said that she got some member complaints, but she responded to each one personally explaining how the bar arrived at their position. “Almost every single time I send one of those emails out, the person who was hot and angry that we issued this, replies with a ‘I had no idea there was so much thought that went into this,’” said McMahon. 

In Conclusion

Not having a communications plan for your bar can put you at risk of reputational harm. By gathering your team and brainstorming how your bar should react to different scenarios ahead of time, you can alleviate the stress before a situation escalates. “The gold standard for being prepared to respond quickly, almost instantly to a crisis situation is to have a plan,” said Hennes. 

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