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The crisis communications problems at the White House provide important lessons for law firms

Making Your Law Firm Media Savvy from Top to Bottom

President Donald Trump’s complaints about anonymous media sources and unauthorized White House news leaks are symptoms of a lack of planning that offers an important lesson in crisis communications for law firms.

Even though the President’s considerable abilities in front of television cameras helped him win the election, many of his current headaches stem directly from not making sure his administration was media savvy from top to bottom.

If the President or his emissaries had properly established a few key rules and a solid media game plan before the inauguration, it’s possible that Team Trump would be spending a lot more time advancing the administration’s policies rather than responding to media bombshells.

The turmoil on Pennsylvania Avenue will be repeated by any law firm or other organization that fails to properly prepare for reporters standing at their doorstep. This is true whether dealing with the press after winning or losing a big case, helping a client announce a major merger, or, in President Trump’s case, being elected as the de facto leader of the free world.

Establish a Media Chain of Command

One of the first steps is to establish a clear chain of command and define the consequences for those who fail to adhere to the program. For some law firms, the media point person will be the managing partner, while others may rely on an in-house communications officer or an outside media consultant.

Regardless of who assumes the media leadership role, it is crucial to clearly state exactly who can and who cannot engage with the media on the firm’s behalf. Just as important, there must be real penalties for anyone who goes outside this chain of command by speaking to the media.

One of the main reasons for limiting the number of official spokespeople is to ensure that your message is consistent. If the same person is delivering the same message to multiple media outlets, then there is little chance for miscommunication.

On the flip side, when multiple individuals try to communicate the same thing, there inevitably will be differences in how they relay the same facts. These discrepancies, however minor, create the opportunity for the media and the public to question if everyone is on the same page – or which message is the truth.

The lack of a properly planned and enforced chain of command has created many of the media problems the Trump Administration faces today. Reporters initially were told that Press Secretary/Acting Communications Director Sean Spicer would be the official White House spokesperson. Soon after, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders emerged in essentially the same role. Only days later, both Spicer and Sanders told the same reporters to rely on the President’s Twitter messages, saying they “speak for themselves.” This type of inconsistency unnerves reporters and creates too many opportunities for mixed messages that can be misinterpreted.

Crisis Communications Fire Drill

Your firm’s response to media inquiries should be treated much like a building fire drill. Everyone should know their role and be able to step into “fire drill mode” as soon as the alarm sounds.

Putting the firm on notice is the first step. This could be as simple as an email that might read:

“The firm is representing a client in a trial (a transaction, etc.) that may conclude soon, and we expect that news reporters will be calling our offices for comment. As noted in the firm’s media communications plan, if you receive a call or other contact from any news outlet looking for comment, please direct them to reach our managing partner without providing any further comment. Be sure to follow up by alerting our managing partner that you received the inquiry.”

It is extremely important for everyone to stick to the media response rules. Much like a fire drill, the results can be disastrous if even one team member strays from the plan. Resourceful reporters may try to work around your designated spokesperson by talking to firm employees at every level, which is another reason everyone should sing from the same songbook.

For example: Even if your managing partner is media trained and fully prepared to explain how the firm won a case for a major client, it won’t make a difference if somebody in the mailroom tells a nosy reporter that they heard the only reason your firm won was because the opposing lead counsel was too sick to handle closing arguments.

While there is no foolproof way to prevent unwanted and/or damaging interactions with the press, the chances of that happening are lessened greatly if you put everyone on notice that the firm has a policy for dealing with the media and that violators will face real world consequences.

Managing Expectations

Once the floodgates have opened and curious reporters start your phones ringing, the main goal should be to identify and respond to those who are most important to your client and your firm.

Depending on the news, it could be that the firm receives so many media requests that it would be physically impossible to call everyone who wants a comment. That’s when managing media expectations is key. If you know going in that you won’t have time to call everyone back, then let reporters know with an email or a call from someone at the firm that you might not be able to get back with them. They will appreciate the candor.

At least one member of your response team should be responsible for cataloging all the requests from the media, which should include:

  • The reporter’s name
  • Where they work
  • Their deadline
  • How they can be reached

Armed with this information, you can begin a triage process to identify the “must call” media outlets and those that you can ignore or contact later. If there are some you do not want to talk to, for whatever reason, or those who you simply don’t have time to call, then it may be best to provide a written statement consistent with what your spokesman is saying in interviews.

Crisis Communications Follow-Up

Once reporters’ phone calls have stopped and their stories have been written and published, it is important to review how your media response team performed and what you learned.

If the coverage largely reflects the firm’s message and you view your interactions with the press as positive, then highlight what made the effort a success so you can repeat it the next time. Obviously, it is similarly important to note any bumps in the road you may have encountered and what should be done differently in future press interactions.

Successfully managing your firm’s dealings with the media is not unlike putting together a winning case. Careful planning, identifying everyone’s roles and sticking to the mission at hand will put you in position to come out on top.

Bruce Vincent is a writer and editor who has been assisting lawyers and law firms in high-profile trials for more than 20 years. When he isn’t preparing for the next big case, you can find him writing informative blogs and websites, building compelling advertising messages, handling crisis situations, or sneaking out early to play a round of golf. He can be reached at Bruce.Vincent@MuseCommunicationsLLC.com.

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