Tuesday, April 19, 2011

When Should Lawyers Be Spokespersons?

With more and more PR people becoming lawyers and working for law firms there seems to be a growing push for having outside spokespersons, especially attorneys when crisis situations occur. But this approach is simply unacceptable in today's world. Whether it's Congress, the Legislature, Parliament, a neighborhood organization, or group of families who've lost loved ones, when bad things happen and there are victims it’s the CEOs backside that is on the line. Many if not most would prefer to defend their circumstances themselves, whatever the risk.

The legal position that lawyers as spokespersons can prevent further damage is simply unfounded. Where is the evidence of nothing happening? The job of the attorney is, like the job of a communicator to advise the people in charge how best to work through the situations and problems they may have caused, and probably may cause in the future, as a part of the response process

I do agree that if the matter is criminal, that is one of very few times when I believe an attorney spokesperson is essential. There is a fair amount of slack in the civil justice system for mistakes. There is no slack in the criminal justice system.

One of the reasons it's the operators who get the big bucks is because they are the ones who also carry the big risks and big responsibilities of failure. Along with those duties comes the absolute obligation to stand up, stand out, and speak up. Yes there will be consequences, it comes with the territory.

It is always best to have competent, trusted, legal counsel, but the leader's job is first and foremost to set the moral tone for the crisis response, second to make certain that any barriers to successful response are smashed promptly, third, to look after the victims and survivors to make certain their needs and requirements are met, fourth, to be accessible, visible, and engaged with those who survive, are responding, and to commit random acts of leadership continuously.

The most powerful antagonists, and aggressive and relentless pursuers and litigators are victims and survivors poorly attended, or ignored.

Today's CEO spends probably 50 percent of their time on non-operating issues, topics, and problems. That's because more of these non-operating issues are landing directly on their desks. They are getting better at it.

The CEO of any major organization today knows that sometime tomorrow, perhaps even this evening they may find themselves in front of a group of angry people, government officials, or employees and the CEO will be microphone in hand, answering for themselves and for others. This is what we expect of leaders, sometimes when they do it well we fire them, sometimes when they do it poorly we fire them. In either case they get paid handsomely and they move on to the next task in their career.

The one thing you can count on almost all CEOs to do in these emergent situations is to reach out to a wide variety of voices and sources to accumulate rapidly as many action options as possible. And, those around the CEOs will be trying to batten down the hatches to keep any outside voices, or inside voices for that matter, besides theirs from being heard.

The most powerful role any staff advisor can play in these urgent situations, communicator, lawyer, financial advisor, even security is to be an originator of options, and additional sources of options from which the CEO and other operators can fashion solutions.

Every crisis response will be flawed in many ways. It’s a crisis. Every crisis situation causes a management crisis no matter how competent their staff resources. All managements act initially with over confidence and over optimism. These realities mean that the expectations of the media for instant responding perfection will be met with failure in most respects every time. But the communication must take place. Silence is the most toxic strategy of all . . .to the leaders rather than the spokespersons.

An organization can outsource any service, advice, manufacturing, execution, even customer service and crisis response. The two things that can never be outsourced in a crisis are leadership and responsibility. Both belong to the person in charge.

And there’s one thing leaders should have learned for sure, bad always news ripens badly.

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Blogger Jim Conway said...

Jim, great post. IHI just had a "radio talk show" where two hospital CEOs discussed their personal management of tragic adverse events. It is an amazing illustration of the power and importance of engaged governance and executive leadership.

Link to http://www.ihi.org/IHI/Programs/AudioAndWebPrograms/WIHI.htm?TabId=14 and scroll down to the program on Reports from the Frontline of Effective Crisis Management.

Jim, Thanks again for your help in this effort. Jim Conway, Senior Fellow, IHI

April 19, 2011 at 6:40 PM  
Blogger The Manager said...

Absolutely correct. The public does not wish to hear from unrelated spokespersons, whether they are lawyers, outside PR people or anyone else. They expect a company to man up with its own personnel.

However, many crises are complicated. A CEO must be the front man but can always turn the reins over to the person(s) on the front line with more knowledge and expertise (if they are capable of speaking well in public). Mayor Bloomberg and his predecessors have done this throughout their terms. General statements and some detail followed by the introduction of the chief of this or that. This format also shows that many people are on the issue and adequate resources are being devoted to solving the problem.

Michael A. Nayor
The Rhodell Group, LLC www.crisismanagementresponse.com

May 4, 2011 at 5:20 PM  

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