A recent PR Week “Gloves Off” column features Todd Defren and Aaron Kwittken answering the question: “Should PR pros oppose the advice of general counsel during a crisis?“
Frankly, this may be one of the silliest questions to be debated in that space, if for no other reason than that the question pre-supposes that communicators and lawyers will always disagree on how to handle a crisis. While that may sometimes be the case, it is far from certain in all situations.
PR Week didn’t ask for my opinion, but I’ll give it anyway. Over the past two decades I have counseled countless clients and individuals in the midst of crises, often with the assistance of legal counsel. Note that I said “assistance.” It would be utterly irresponsible to dismiss lawyers as a hindrance from the get-go. I have met many perfectly reasonable attorneys — as well as some that do fit the “no comment” stereotype.
In the original piece, Todd Defren argues forcefully that PR pros must play a key role in the decision-making and should not yield unnecessarily to the lawyers. However, he concludes that “More important than butting heads though, is finding a middle ground.” Amen to that. Everyone should have a seat at the table and all concerns should be considered before a final decision is made by the CEO or other senior managers.
Although saddled with the “no” position, Aaron Kwittken does a nice job of supporting the general counsel’s point of view while ultimately winding up in a similar place. He writes that “Lawyers are wired to say no and PR people are wired to say go, but that doesn’t mean that sometimes we cannot have a friction-free relationship.”
In the middle of a crisis, it would be foolhardy for a CEO to ignore either your PR advice or your general counsel. They both play an important role, especially in a time when communications moves at a higher volume and faster pace than ever before — while many seem more inclined than ever to file lawsuits over just about any perceived slight or wrong.
It’s not just about PR and lawyers, though. The CEO should also be incorporating perspectives about how the crisis impacts customers, employees, and others (depending on the exact nature of the situation). Good leaders have a strong group of advisors that should never be afraid to be perfectly candid.
Sometimes the “middle ground” that Todd encourages may not be found. There will be circumstances when the PR pros or the lawyers may be totally overruled. And that’s OK, too. Not every leadership decision will be popular, but it’s hard to fault if it is well-reasoned and well-informed.