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Media and Crisis Management

Legal vs PR – Which is Right in a Crisis?

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Legal vs PR – Which is Right in a Crisis?Crisis Response

As I speak around the country on crisis leadership almost every audience asks, “How do you deal with the lawyers?” Put another way, “When your reputation is on the line, which advice takes precedence: legal or PR?”

Fascinating insights into that conundrum came in a teleseminar a few years ago involving attorney/crisis communications consultant Richard Levick of Levick Strategic Communications and attorney Ed Novak of Quarles & Brady Streich Lang LLP, both of whom have vast experience with high profile national legal/PR cases. The teleseminar was hosted by crisis consultant Jonathan Bernstein of Bernstein Crisis Management. They have given me permission to share some of their words to you.

Levick said defense attorneys should think beyond the law. “(They) are not in the business of litigating, they are not in the business of lawyering — they are in the business of protecting their client’s brand.” He said they usually insist on “driving the bus” when they should be “on the bus:” an essential but not exclusive part of the defense team. “The defense counsel should say ‘this is what we’re going to do, do any of you – PR, IR, etcetera – have an argument for why we should not do that?’” Novak agreed: “You cannot substitute legal judgment for business judgment.”

When Bernstein asked to whom the CEO should listen if legal counsel and PR counsel disagreed, Novak said PR. “…you can win the legal battle and lose the reputational war… I don’t want to be responsible for having obtained a legal victory that assuages my ego and solves one little problem but costs the company its reputation in the marketplace.” Levick’s tack? “You always have to defer to the legal issues at hand. That doesn’t mean that they dominate, but issues of privilege, issues of deadlines, those things have to be addressed… at the end of the day every case is different and there is no boilerplate which says this is how we should handle this in a particular matter.”

As for lawyers and the media…

Novak and Levick stressed lawyers should know how to communicate with reporters. Novak said defense attorneys have shot themselves in the foot for not including communications experts as part of the team. Levick said a Daimler Chrysler senior legal executive once insisted. “We will not hire a law firm unless they understand the media. Our brand is too important.” Novak will occasionally videotape mock interviews with clients to show them how poorly their messages will come across. Levick added, “There is nothing more powerful than the religion of television. The mock interview, watching yourself on television, is like getting the first glimpse of your high school photographs for the yearbook, one of those painful experiences that says ‘you are not yet ready.’”

Chicago consultant Rick Kamel once said “truth is determined by the first person to hold the news conference.” Richard Levick and Ed Novak are like-minded. Novak said that for lawyers, “There is nothing more important than getting your story out first… it is more likely to get more coverage than the response.” Levick said that the race to the journalist’s phone is as important as the race to the courthouse. “We believe what we hear first.”

Novak distilled for lawyers the power of strike-first communications in terms that crisis managers like Jonathan Bernstein encourage: “If you can be the first one, whether plaintiff or defendant, to set the tone, frame the issues in terms that the public understands and can empathize with, you’re likely to have that support throughout the litigation.”

Personally, lawyers and I work well together, and as I listened to these remarks, I thought of a Wall Street Journal column recommending that every MBA school have crisis management as part of the curriculum. Having heard Ed, Richard, Jonathan, and reflecting on my own experiences, I think every law school should have it as well.

A recording of the teleseminar is available for sale at

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