Hearken the hacks

Why lawyers and their clients would benefit from working with journalists – especially in a crisis. By Magnus Carter

In the old days of Fleet Street, lawyers and journalists spent a lot of time together, both at work and play. During the day they rubbed shoulders at the Royal Courts of Justice, and in the evening they socialised together at the famous Wig & Pen Club.

Now the journalists have all moved out and the once seemingly immortal Wig & Pen is closed.

It would be easy to suggest that these events are symptomatic of a growing gap between the legal profession and the media.

The likely truth is that the law and journalism were always uneasy bedfellows.

The reality is that lawyers in general (there are honourable exceptions) have not yet learned to manage the risks involved in dealing with the media. As a result they, and often their clients, are failing to capitalise on the opportunities that the media can offer.

Managing your PR

It is not that law firms are unaware of these opportunities. Most of the top 100, and many more besides, employ a PR professional or consultancy.

But how many partners really know how to manage their PR, or indeed any aspect of their marketing plan? Do they know what it can or cannot realistically deliver? Some basic training is essential to help set clear and achievable PR objectives and to ensure that senior lawyers know how to measure what they are getting for their adviser’s efforts.

To get the most return, senior lawyers need to be ready to make a contribution. After all, journalists do not want to talk to PR professionals – they want to hear from the people who actually do the job. In short, they want the kind of ‘easy’ access that the Wig & Pen Club provided – an access of equals.

Handling the media

The ability to work with journalists should be an essential tool in the box of any senior lawyer. They should know how to deal with media interviews, how to stay ‘on message’ without seeming like an automaton and how to handle journalists by understanding their real needs.

Of course, it is always hard to argue the value of non-vocational training in an increasingly time-poor and time-sensitive commercial environment.

However, one leading litigation lawyer was recently prepared to invest two half-days of his valuable time rehearsing for TV, radio and press interviews on a high-profile case. As a result, some of the families involved asked him to act as their official spokesman (chargeable time) and other families joined the action, bringing in additional business worth tens of thousands of pounds.

Another lawyer, a senior partner, recently said he had always found journalists “more scary” than judges to deal with because he did not understand the media’s protocols. After attending a media training course, he has now become a regular contributor to his local radio station and is his marketing department’s favourite ‘star’.

Managing crises

Clients often need their lawyers because they have a crisis on their hands, such as an industrial dispute, environmental disaster, product defect, computer breakdown or a major accident involving staff or the public.

All too often organisations are torn between apparently contradictory advice when they are trying to handle these situations.
While lawyers are advising them to keep their heads down and avoid the media, their PR advisers are encouraging them to work with the media as much as possible.

Ironically, both parties are working to protect their client. The lawyer’s role is to protect a company from criminal prosecution and future liability and also to protect its standing with insurers and regulators. Safeguarding the company’s reputation and public profile is the main goal for the PR professional.

These should not present a clash of options for the client.
Communications advisers and lawyers can work together to provide an ‘all-points’ service in crisis management.

Successful management of a crisis is, of course, about recognising that you have one and taking the appropriate actions to remedy the situation – but it is also about being seen to take these actions and being heard to say the right things.

A strong and positive communications strategy is the single most important aspect of a robust crisis management plan. The golden rule is to begin communicating at once and to take the initiative by treating all media seriously as a means of informing the firm and the general public on how you are dealing with the crisis.

Do not hold back

The experience of the airline industry provides a good example. In the aftermath of a disaster, airlines usually expect to lose up to 50 per cent of ticket sales through loss of public confidence.

In the case of the 1990 crash of a British Midland Boeing 737, ticket sales actually increased in the following weeks. This was because the airline’s chairman, Sir Michael Bishop, began giving interviews at once and he focused on the right messages. In doing so, he began to manage the flow and content of news to the media. As a result, the airline was perceived to be caring and responsible – in effect part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Contacting the media before it contacts you can seem counter-intuitive for many organisations. The temptation is to hold back from communicating for fear of being misreported, needing to know all the facts first or the need to get on and deal with the crisis.

Sometimes companies hold back due to overcautious advice from professional advisers, particularly lawyers. But there is a serious need for communication and legal experts to gain a better understanding of one another’s roles and standpoints and to work together more effectively to provide clients with comprehensive and realistic advice that does not add to their stress.

We may never see a return to the cosy old days of the Wig & Pen, but lawyers can have productive relationships with journalists – and they can play a key role in helping their clients do likewise.

Magnus Carter is managing director of Mentor Consultancy