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Panel: Plan in advance to handle crisis communications

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Panel: Plan in advance to handle crisis communications

By Daniel Buchanan

Companies should develop at the minimum a broad communications plan in advance to handle any type of crisis, experts said Saturday during a panel discussion on corporate ethics and the role of legal counsel.

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“Eighty-five percent of those organizations [in a crisis] fare better if they have plans in place,” said Judy Smith, a lawyer and veteran crisis communications expert who counts Paula Deen, among others, on her list of clients. “You really spend too much time scurrying around trying to get organized” if you don’t have a plan.

Smith, the inspiration for ABC’s hit show Scandal, joined several other lawyers representing government and private industry in the program “Keeping Cool While Betting the Company: The Ethical Counsel in Corporate Crisis.” It was sponsored by several committees of the Business Law Section on the third day of the American Bar Association’s Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

Jay A. Dubow, an attorney with Pepper Hamilton LLP, agreed with Smith, noting that a firm could “lose a half a week to a week just in that process” of getting up to speed on developing a communications plan. Experts say such a plan should incorporate the chief executive, legal counsel, communications and investor relations personnel, among others.

Wayne M. Carlin, a partner in Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz’s Litigation Department, said it is also important to determine quickly “who is the point person on behalf of the company” in dealing with the public and media. Smith observed it is important to have “those people trained in the media” in advance.

“One of the key things to success is message discipline and consistency of message,” Smith said.

Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals, observed that his impression is that corporations, like human beings, suffer from self-delusion and that there must be a voice of reason and reality in dealing with any crisis.

In response to a question about how much she wants to know from a client, Smith responded: “I want to know everything. The question is if you legal beagles will tell me. But I want to know everything.”

Carlin said when investigating a situation that could turn out to be a crisis for a company, top executives should make sure that the “right people are conducting the investigation” and that the inquiry has the right scope to “dig all the way down to understand what really took place.”