Legal Implications of Crisis Communications
Robert highlights five key areas of law that communicators need to understand when dealing with issues and crises. Lawyers see one of the most controversial areas in public statements and disclosures. In particular, they believe that the tendency of communicators to communicate openly and transparently means that they risk disclosing information, which may lead to liability or future litigation. Lawyers are also concerned about the lack of legal awareness among communication professionals. Like Claeys, Fields stresses the importance of situational training before the current crisis. For example, he notes that simulations offer executives and teams the opportunity to play mentally and emotionally in a crisis scenario, while media training and creating playbooks help clients create the real language they might use when certain events occur. «Managing a crisis, like any communication situation, is a muscle, and if you don`t exercise that muscle from time to time, it`s going to atrophy,» Fields says. She quickly received a legal letter from Quebec beverage giant Lassonde Industries, known for its Oasis brand fruit juices. Lassonde`s lawyers asked her to immediately stop using the name, recall all her assets from the stores and return all profits she had made. (Keep in mind that their annual revenues were about C$250,000, compared to C$700 million for Lassonde.) When asked what makes a crisis communications professional successful, Fields cites empathy as one of his top considerations. A good crisis counselor — a term he often uses alongside the lawyer — is someone who «gets along very well with people,» he says. At FleishmanHillard, crisis consultants come from the fields of journalism, public affairs, government relations and other fields. What all these consultants have in common is the ability to read a play, understand the interaction of humanity and stress in crises, and distill a clear, simple and accurate story for key stakeholders.
«If you can`t fit into that space and still have a true North about what you need to do,» he says, «it`s not going to be a good experience for anyone.» However, legal response syndrome occurs when legal counsel is allowed to override all other advice, which goes far beyond the need to balance legal and communication advice. It may also apply to advice from operations, business, marketing, human resources, accounting, government relations or various other disciplines. Several academic theories help companies navigate the minefield of perception. In 1997, William Benoit began publishing on the subject of «Image Restoration Theory». Benoit describes several strategies for responding to a business crisis. Whether it`s denying one`s role in a scandal or admitting guilt but blaming good intentions, strategies for any crisis are generalizable enough, focusing not on the details of what happened, but on the message that could be conveyed to the public to help restore reputation. Later, W. Timothy Coombs proposed the theory of situational crisis communication (SCCT), an idea that proposes different answers depending on whether the public attributes responsibility for the crisis.
Unlike image recovery theory, SCCT divides organizational responses according to the nature of the event: if the organization is considered a victim and not responsible for what happened, it can deny any responsibility in its corporate statement. If it is an accident, like many product damage crises, the organization may try to reduce its role in the situation or severity of the problem. If the organization is to blame, it should try the strategy of reconstruction: apologize, correct the wrong thing, and try to restore public perception. Accept that problems arise. Meet with your crisis management team and determine your best approach in advance so you have as much control as possible if issues arise during the audit. Deal with auditors. «You have to give up your privileges and tell us, otherwise there will be no expungement.» You may hear or read these words from your organization`s auditors in the weeks or months following a crisis. Organizations in crisis may struggle to determine the most effective response. Responses to crises can be reactive or proactive, vague or transparent, defensive or accommodating, etc.
When determining an attitude, organizations must consider not only the reputational consequences of their response, but also the legal and financial results.