More and more, as public relations practitioners, especially if you work with clients on crisis communication, you will work with attorneys – either the client’s in-house attorneys or outside counsel. Bill Ojile, an attorney and partner at Armstrong Teasdale and former GFM client, recently met with the GFM team to share his insights on how to effectively work with legal counsel.
According to Bill, lawyers’ jobs are to make people uncomfortable, to ask a lot of questions and to be skeptical. He also noted that lawyers don’t write for everyday people, and they don’t write for the media; they write for every contingency. With that said, how do PR people and lawyers co-exist and together create the very best communications and outcomes for their mutual clients? Bill provided the following tips for how to navigate the legal waters:
Show a willingness to learn – As the PR representative, to get on the good side of legal counsel, demonstrate a willingness to understand the company and its issues. Show that you’re sensitive to the issues the company is facing. Ask smart questions that demonstrate you understand how an issue could impact the company’s reputation. You’ll have more credibility if you show you’re a valuable asset to the company, able to help them work through the issues that impact their reputation and bottom line.
Bring objectivity – Many companies buy into group “Stockholm syndrome” – they buy into single thinking, and the leadership team will rally behind one message or issue. As the PR person, help move the company from its single message/thinking to understanding the bigger picture. Don’t be afraid to tell the client why their “group thinking” isn’t the only solution. Bring other ideas and recommendations and point out when something is blatantly wrong. This will help you earn respect and credibility.
Work together on joint messaging – In a crisis, the best teams will include both the legal counsel and the communications experts. PR people need an attorney who will review messaging for substance, with an eye for how it ties in with the legal issues at hand. An attorney’s inclination is to always want to stay out of the media, while PR people recognize that stonewalling media or issuing a “no comment” is always a bad idea. This is where PR and legal need to agree on how and what to communicate to all stakeholders, including the media. There are so many tools available to communicate with target audiences (email, e-newsletters, blogs, social media platforms, issues websites, bylined articles in newspapers, advertorials, etc.) – share these tools/communications vehicles with legal counsel, so they have an understanding of how critical messages will be communicated to all audiences to help maintain their trust during a crisis.
Public relations and legal counsel can learn a lot from each other. Both have their strengths and challenges when it comes to communications, especially during a crisis. It’s best to test out the relationship and discuss how to work together before the “you know what” hits the fan.
Learn more about how PR and legal counsel can work together: Managing the Court of Pubic Opinion During a Media Crisis.