June 2017

Why lawyers need crisis communication skills, too

On April 9, a United Airlines passenger who refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight was dragged off the airplane as fellow passengers recorded the incident on their phones. The passenger, Dr. David Dao, suffered a broken nose and a concussion. The incident lit up social media and the airline was plunged into a public relations crisis that it made worse before it started to correct itself.

Then there’s Fox News, which in the past year has had to pay millions in settlements for sexual harassment charges and then fire first its CEO, Roger Ailes, then its highest-rated TV host, Bill O’Reilly.

Although these two examples dominated the headlines, James F. Haggerty, a New York City attorney, writer, software entrepreneur and communications consultant, says you don’t need to be a brand name to get damaged by a crisis, you only need to have a public and care about what they think of you.

His new book, Chief Crisis Officer: Structure and Leadership for Effective Communications Response, offers a how-to on not only effectively managing a crisis, but how lawyers and nonlawyers alike need the structure, skills and leadership to respond to unexpected events at the speed of modern communication.  

YourABA caught up with Haggerty to find out more:

Why should lawyers read ‘Chief Crisis Officer’?

​One of the main reasons is that they just don’t teach this stuff in law school! Nor is crisis communications response an element of training for a lawyer on-the-job... although it should be. Increasingly, lawyers — both at law firms and in-house — are finding themselves thrust into a crisis communications role, either as the Chief Crisis Officer themselves or working with business executives and public relations pros as part of the crisis communications team.

​Indeed (as detailed in the book), we’ve seen more than one example in the past several years where the crisis communications function in a corporation reports directly to the general counsel’s office. And a handful of major law firms — including Covington & Burling and Holland & Knight, to name just two — have created their own crisis management specialty. So there is an amazing confluence of the disciplines.

​I should add that “Chief Crisis Officer” is not a textbook or a typical legal treatise — I like to write books that I’d want to read even if I didn’t have to. So I’ve included a lot of personal examples and reflections on my experiences, based on more than 25 years of doing this type of work.  I aimed to create an engaging and fun read, even as you learn a ton about cutting-edge practices in the crisis communications field. 

You emphasize preparedness in crisis communications, particularly institutionalizing and mechanizing the crisis response function so “it can be triggered even if some of the key actors aren’t available when a crisis occurs.” What’s the best way to prepare?

I emphasize in the book — and when I speak before law firms, corporations, in CLE events and other venues — two basic elements of proper crisis communications preparation: you’ve got to create a plan that people actually use, and you’ve got to keep it simple.

​​And these are interrelated. You don’t want the result of your preparedness efforts to be a thick binder sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering dust or buried in a corporate server where no one can find it. In fact, one of my favorite quotes in the book is: “...a thick binder is more likely to be the weight you use to prop the door open as you run from the building during a crisis than the tool you use to respond.”

​That’s why we emphasize technology in crisis response, including examples drawn from​ the software we created, ​CrisisResponsePro.com: We want all the tools and resources we need at our fingertips, through any laptop, tablet or smartphone. That’s how you make sure a plan can be executed by multiple members of the team and you are not reinventing the wheel each time.

United Airlines would seem to have fumbled their response to the incident in April when a passenger was forcibly removed from a flight. Have they done enough to recover?

​They’ve made some good moves in recent weeks, but t​he United Airlines case is a classic example of what​ can happen in this age of camera-phones and social media if your crisis playbook is outdated or inadequate. In fact, if you look at any recent big-name crisis in recent years — from the BP oil spill, to the Target data breach, the Volkswagen emissions scandal and on and on — the one thing that really binds them together is the fact that the initial response was fumbled and it was days or weeks before the company could get its act together.

​You see that pattern over and over. I​n the United Airlines case, I believe if the company had apologized and took steps to make things right immediately, we’d barely remember it at this point. I often tell clients: The public will accept mistakes, so long as you (1) apologize; (2) figure out what went wrong and communicate that to the public; and (3) explain the steps you are taking to minimize the likelihood that it will happen again. 

Why do mistakes in crisis response keep happening​​?​

There are a few reasons, but clearly the biggest is the fact that companies just aren’t ready. They haven’t gamed out the scenarios beforehand. And there is a natural human tendency to want to ignore problems in the hope they go away. Some do... but it’s the ones that don’t that will get you. One further thought: sometimes companies and their advisors act like there is no way they could have predicted a particular crisis, as if there’s just too many negative things that could happen for a company to plan for them all. Respectfully, they are wrong.  A passenger incident is something United Airlines should be able to anticipate, just​ like a data breach at Target or an oil spill by a company that drills in the Gulf of Mexico. So as a risk management tool, you need a plan in place and the ability to execute. Look at it this way: you may never use your commercial liability insurance policy, but it’s negligent not to have it in place. So, too, with crisis communications response.

What are the keys to an effective crisis response?

You need the leadership, the structure and the tools—and you need them ready to go at the speed of the modern crisis.

​At the core of any crisis communications response, you are telling people: (1) what has happened (or as much as you know about what has happened); (2) what might happen next; and (3) what you are doing about it. If you are not out quickly, providing the public the sense that you are in control, they are going to assume that you are not in control. ​That doesn’t mean that you have to have all the facts — and if you don’t have all the facts yet, that’s exactly what you should say publicly. But you should establish what we like to call the “Control, Information, Response (CIR)” process, which will cement the perception that you are managing the crisis — rather than having the crisis manage you.

How did we get to the point where now virtually all crises are legal crises?

​Part of the reason this topic is so important for lawyers to understand — as opposed to 10 years ago — is that law, litigation and regulation now extend to virtually every aspect of the business relationship. So there is rarely a modern crisis that doesn’t have legal issues either at the front end (perhaps as the cause of the crisis), in the middle (as regulators and prosecutors get involved) or in the aftermath (​cue the plaintiffs lawyers!). Today’s explosion is tomorrow’s regulatory investigation and next week’s environmental lawsuit. Hence the importance of lawyers having sharp crisis communications skills as a key tool in their arsenal. That’s what Chief Crisis Officer is all about. 

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