“Should lawyers be giving PR advice in a crisis?” is the question posed for a story in the New Zealand Law Society’s Law Talk magazine. Public Relations Institute of New Zealand Inc. (PRINZ) chief executive Tim Marshall provides these comments.
Public relations and communications management (PR/CM) in a crisis is a complex and demanding field requiring clear thinking, great organisational teamwork and fast action. PR/CM crisis management experts must identify and communicate with a multitude of stakeholders via a daunting array of media ranging from news and social media to public meetings and street posters.
Many – but no means all – crises have legal issues at their heart. In the best of all possible worlds PR/CM practitioners work alongside legal advisers to chart a course that will manage both the legal risk and protect the organisation’s reputation.
Mutual respect for different roles: In a crisis lawyers and (PR/CM) practitioners each bring their own skills to the situation. Ideally there will be a mutual respect and a willingness to work together. An organisation which focuses only on its legal obligations rather than taking into account the views and wishes of stakeholders runs a serious risk of damaging its reputation.
Organisations should include their legal counsel in their crisis communication planning and rehearsals. If, during that process, they identify legal concerns, these should be taken back to the issues management process to be resolved before they become a crisis. In general terms, legal implications of crisis situations should form part of the scenario planning so that those involved – legal, PR / communications / other team members – are familiar with each other and aware of the operational requirements of each. Bringing together ‘siloed’ disciplines that each have their own operational track can, only when a crisis strikes, can be a recipe for disaster.
Find a PR/CM crisis management specialist: Generally, PR/CM practitioners are skilled in media and stakeholder communications. However, as lawyers do, PR/CM practitioners tend to specialise in different areas such as marketing communications, internal communications, investor relations, government relations and community relations. Therefore, it is important in a crisis when reputation is at stake to identify and work with a PR/CM practitioner who is a crisis management communications expert. The PRINZ Guide to PR Consultancies lists PR consultancies and their areas of specialisation and can be found on www.prinz.org.nz
In-house vs consultancy PR/CM roles: About 70% of PR/CM practitioners work “in-house” – i.e. are employed in full time roles in corporates, government, local government or not for profit organisations – with most of the balance working in consultancies. Capable in-house practitioners can handle challenging situations but a crisis by nature is out of the ordinary and organisations will often call on the crisis/reputation management experience of a consultancy. Consultancies are also called on to provide additional operational resources when organisations are stretched.
Not all crises have a legal focus: For example the Christchurch earthquake and the kiwifruit psa outbreak crises both required expert communications but neither had a legal focus resulting from human conflict or fault. Both these crises gave rise to PRINZ Award-winning work this year which are published in the e-book PRINZ Public Relations Case Studies 2011.
The PR perspective – winning hearts and minds: Broadly speaking PR/CM practitioners work from the paradigm of “winning hearts and minds” of an organisations’ many stakeholders including staff, customers, investors, suppliers and neighbours. This is quite a different perspective than the adversarial role of a courtroom lawyer whose focus will be winning the legal case. The PR practitioner’s role is protecting or restoring reputation in the “court of public opinion”.
Role of media: The ‘court of public opinion’ is influenced by the media – print, electronic and social – and PR/CM practitioners represent their clients in this theatre on a daily basis. As with the justice system’s courtroom, media activity has rules, procedures and conventions, and ignoring or being unaware of them is not in a client’s best interests. A crisis situation is also not a time for ‘learning as you go’.
– Tim Marshall
Chief Executive, PRINZ
PRINZ Course 30 Sep Auckland – In at the deep end: On-the-ground crisis
This new action-packed session is for any practitioner who wants to learn more about how to manage PR and communications in an incident management setting and get involved with some ‘hands-on’ scenario responses. Each section of the day will be followed by a live exercise so delegates can see just how they respond under pressure and what happens as a result. At the end of the course practitioners will be able to demonstrate understanding of:
· The PR role within New Zealand’s Co-ordinated Management System; · Legal requirements and obligations; · Crisis management planning (to a minimum standard); · The role of the media; The realities of working in crisis/incident situations, expectations and how to do an effective job.