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Creating a Crisis Communications Plan for Law Firms
June 12, 2023

As the specialist provider of Media Training for law firms, we are increasingly being asked about crisis communications. The world is an increasingly risky place. Compared with just a few years ago, threats such as cyberattacks and allegations of bullying, sexism, racism, as well as reputational damage caused not by firms themselves but by the activities of their clients and associations have all increased massively. Given this worrying trend, it’s hardly surprising that our crisis communications for law firms courses and workshops have seen a considerable increase over the last few years, with more and more magic circle, silver circle, and other law firms as well as a number of organisations involved in legal services, including barristers’ chambers are now looking to develop and implement an effective crisis strategy.

We work extensively with lawyers, so we know how they think. We know that law firms are risk averse, and so our Media Training for lawyers is focused on how to mitigate risks as well as exploit opportunities to gain extensive, positive media coverage. Given that organisations expect their law firms and legal counsel to protect them against risk, it’s all the more important that there is an effective communication strategy in place. A well-executed response plan for law firms means that partners and other senior people within the organisation are well-placed to manage any of the threats mentioned above, as well as the other risks that companies now run in their day-to-day business activities.

As part of our workshops, we work with in-house comms teams and public relations consultants to develop a strategy that any firm can use to minimise the impact of a crisis, such as a cyberattack or an allegation of toxic work culture. However, we also work with other legal services professionals to help them handle less serious but equally difficult situations.

In our Media Training courses for law firms, we collaborate with the in-house comms teams and public relations experts to prepare partners and members of the senior leadership team to deal with questions to do with talent leaving to join another firm, the loss of a prominent client or simply low ratings on Glassdoor and other workplace review sites. After all, it’s one thing to have a line to take on these difficult issues, but it’s another thing altogether to deliver it confidently and effectively when a journalist asks about them – and persists with their questioning.

What is Crisis Communication?

Managing a crisis poorly can have so many detrimental effects on a business such as a law firm. It can make recruiting new clients and talent more difficult. It can damage staff morale, and for commercial organisations, it can even push the cost of finance as lenders do their due diligence.

Essentially, a crisis communication plan refers to the strategic communications undertaken by individuals, businesses, organisations, or governments to manage and mitigate the negative impact of a crisis or emergency. It involves identifying key audiences and stakeholders – especially the media, both conventional and social – as well as clients, employees and regulators. Having done this, an effective crisis communications plan can help them to communicate effectively with these various stakeholders during a period of disruption or while they are involved in a controversy.

Communication for law firms, as is the case with other organisations, is primarily about reassurance – reassurance that the firm cares about its clients and employees and reassurance that it has the situation under control. An effective strategy should enable the organisation to provide accurate and timely information in a way that maintains trust and credibility. Ultimately, if carried out correctly, it can protect the reputation and interests of a law firm. In some cases, a high-quality strategy can actually leave an organisation with a better reputation than it enjoyed before the incident struck, as its target audiences take the view that it did everything it could to rectify the situation and to behave well under challenging circumstances.

Importance of a Crisis Management Plan

Effective crisis communication is essential for law firms because it can prevent the loss of clients and talent and demonstrate to the world that the firm is competent and well-run. After all, if a firm behaves badly in a crisis, what does it say about the way that it can protect its clients from harm? Recent years have seen several major law firms hit by cyberattacks, and the legal press has run stories about toxic workplace atmospheres. Having a strategy that can identify and handle these threats quickly and efficiently is increasingly important.

More and more companies realise that preparing for crises and having an effective crisis communication strategy in place is part of the duty of care that directors have to the business. Similarly, partners and senior leadership teams need to demonstrate that they have a crisis communication strategy or at least a response to these problematic issues. The chances of one of your offices being hit by a fire, a bomb, or another physical disaster might be small, but the impact, should it happen, could be huge. Are you prepared to get on the front foot when communicating with the outside world about such a serious incident?

Assessing Potential Crises

As part of our training for law firms and their public relations support, we identify and assess the potential causes of crises. Our experience as training providers for law firms means that we know what risks and threats lawyers and those working in legal services face. We can help identify where these risks might come from, how conventional media and social media might treat them, and how law firms can respond effectively.

One of our key activities in training for law firms is to identify how the senior leadership team, as well as the in-house comms people and public relations support, might hear about a crisis or difficult situation. Often, organisations only discover that something has gone seriously wrong when a journalist contacts them to ask about it or a story starts running on Twitter and other social media outlets.

In a crisis situation, “information in” is almost as important as “information out”. In other words, how will you hear about the crisis or even something that could lead to a difficult or embarrassing situation? We help managing partners and others to develop an internal and external communication strategy that can enable employees to identify potential crises and assist them in knowing how they should respond and how to inform their line reports and others. This could be anybody from partners and legal support staff through to receptionists. Once this “information in” aspect of crisis management is established, a firm can think about “information out”. This means what they will say about it, who they will talk to, and how they will communicate.

Developing a Crisis Communication Team

Obviously, in any crisis for a law firm, key players are the in-house communications department and the firm’s PR company if they have one.

However, the senior leadership team will also have to play a role. Depending on the nature of the crisis, it might be those responsible for HR, site management, finance, IT or client relations. It’s too late to start identifying and recruiting members of the crisis communications team when a crisis hits. Things move incredibly quickly these days. When we started providing Media Training around crises, we used to talk about “the golden hour”. This was the time in which an organisation hit by a crisis had to respond effectively to get on the front foot and lead the news agenda. If they hadn’t appropriately reacted during this short period of time, they would forever be on the back foot, acting defensively to limit the damage. These days that 60-minute time limit is probably just a few minutes as social media responds so much more quickly to any incident.

The crisis communications team will want to be well prepared to respond, and each member will need to know their own particular responsibilities as well as how and when the group is going to meet.

Drafting and Distributing Crises Messages

Whatever the particular issue, a crisis message must show that the firm takes the situation seriously and is actually quick and effective in taking control of events. Depending on the details of the incident, there might need to be an element of care and concern towards human beings. Very importantly, the firm must consider how the statement will reassure clients, potential clients, employees and suppliers. Providing reassurance without appearing to dismiss or minimise the incident can be tricky, and we work with law firms and other organisations to ensure they get this wording just right. Our trainers are working journalists (operating under strict NDAs), and clients tell us that having this professional experience and dispassionate input is very useful for drafting these statements.

Because time is so short, we recommend that law firms and other organisations develop a range of templates relating to various relevant issues that they can amend to fit the particular circumstances of the crisis incident when it hits. You could, for instance, draft a statement prepared to handle a data breach. Relevant details can be added to this template, and sentences can be tweaked to reflect what happened. Not having to start from scratch speeds up the process of drafting and distribution.

Our crisis communications courses also offer advice on how and when to distribute the crisis statement. Sometimes it’s helpful to release it through social media and press releases to the firm’s media list. On other occasions, it might be more appropriate to make the statement purely reactive, something that is used only if the media and other stakeholders enquires about the situation. Message development and testing for crises are essential to any law firm’s crisis planning.

Monitoring and Adapting the Strategy

Having decided on your response to the crisis and issued a statement where necessary. You’ll then have to monitor the situation. To make our crisis communication courses for law firms realistic, we’ll develop a relevant crisis scenario with the in-house comms team or PR advisors and then develop and update it during the course. As would happen in real life, we will start with a few basic facts – plus plenty of uncertainty and confusion. The participants in the course will have to work out with their comms advisors how they will manage this initial stage of the issue. Then, during the course, we’ll update it with new revelations, events, and responses from outside organisations and other stakeholders to what happened.

The reason why we do this is because this is what will happen in real life. Part of the crisis communication for a law firm will involve monitoring the response in conventional and social media and adapting accordingly. We always advise our clients to ‘tell it all, tell it quickly and tell it truthfully’. The fact is that you cannot change your initial story or line during a crisis, as this can book shifty and make you appear to be lacking any control over events. However, should new information emerge or an external party make an intervention which is particularly serious and significant, then you may have to update your response.

Again, what you say, when you say it and how you say it are all imperative – and they are issues that we explore and advise on during our workshops.

You might want to correct information, but you will not want to get involved in a spat on social media as this will only give the story “legs”, as we say in the media and can make you look desperate and undignified.

Crisis Communications – Can your Law Firm Survive?

Ultimately, a law firm facing a crisis aims to encourage relevant audiences to think “sometimes bad things happen to good people” and that the firm did everything it could correctly, given the circumstances. As we mentioned above, in some cases, organisations can actually benefit and improve their brand image by handling a difficult situation well. Having a crisis communication plan ready to go with spokespeople trained on how to manage the situation and handle media enquiries is essential for any company wanting to protect its reputation.

We’d be delighted to help you with your crisis communications plan.

Please call 07958 239892 or email gareth@communicatemedia.com. We help clients across London and the UK, but also worldwide.

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