This Is Not a Drill: A Conversation with Crisis Communications Advisor Dave Poston

By Leslie Valenza, media and communications consultant and editor of LMA's Mid-Atlantic Region Newsletter

Poston Communications CEO and media advisor Dave Poston, Esq., joined with six other presenters in a March 26 LMA webinar discussing Coronavirus crisis communications. In the following interview, Poston shares his thoughts on what law firm leaders and media managers can do to prepare for future crises, and to streamline internal and external communications surrounding such situations.

In the webinar, a panelist mentioned some firms were quick to communicate about Coronavirus. What are some examples that demonstrate how prepared firms got it right?

Firms that “got it right” were quick to communicate internally with their staff and lawyers, as well as externally with clients and others outside their firms. A number of firms prepared holding statements. Simply saying, “We’re watching this situation,” – even if just internally at a staff meeting – is reassuring and builds confidence and trust in leaders. For example, firms that debated whether to activate their crisis plans and discussed, “What happens if we have to close our offices?” proved useful. Early adopters were able to work through those options out of a sense of precaution, whereas other firms were in response mode.

Dave, during the webinar, you shared 20 contents of a crisis plan. What is the first step firms should take to develop a crisis communications plan?

Crisis planning is sort of like software training. It’s usually easier to accomplish when working with an actual scenario that individuals involved can imagine happening to them. Thus, ranking scenarios is one of the best starting points of crisis planning.

Let’s say, for instance, your firm has an older and influential named partner, but there’s a leadership gap due to a lack of a leadership development program. Succession planning may be a more critical situation facing your firm than for another firm that has a number of leaders waiting in the wings. And taking an honest look at your data security is another important example. In regard to COVID-19, preparing a statement in case a key employee or leader falls ill is important.

Also, marketers need to make an honest assessment of their leaders. If you feel your leaders are not good communicators, you need to have a backup plan. Having an ally on the executive committee or an influential partner who’s in sync with you is critical to having a plan on file, even if it’s not greenlit by firm leaders. Don’t leave yourself in a lurch to be unprepared when a crisis hits just because leadership doesn’t see the value in communications planning.

What are some other key scenarios firms should prepare for?

It’s important to have a malpractice plan to prepare for any lawsuits against the firm, particularly if a firm is growing quickly. A new lawyer might bring client conflicts or other liabilities if they’re coming from a firm with a different culture for handling conflicts. Mergers often bring risks relating to clients, which is certainly only a worst-case scenario. And this category of scenarios can be expanded to include suits involving individual bad actor situations. Scenarios might include accidents, political statements that make clients unhappy, harassment claims and other sticky situations.

And you want to be ready to help clients. Now more than ever, practicing law requires lawyers to have an understanding of how media relations impact their work for clients. For example, have a protocol in place to help your lawyers analyze a media situation to determine whether you can help them internally or whether outside agency assistance is needed. The alternative to avoiding those situations impacts lawyers’ client service.

I should say that assisting clients in handling their crises brings challenging nuances. I’ve found a lot of inhouse marketers worry they need to understand how to handle a media situation themselves, and they don’t need to feel that way. They just need to understand where to get those resources and have a list of prescreened agencies that they can call on.

Who, in your opinion, should be at the table in handling a crisis?

It’s important to consider how many people are at the table, which can be too few or too many, while you need a full spectrum of voices. Sometimes you need voices to counterbalance leaders’ perspectives, particularly if they’re not strong communicators. For instance, if you have a sexual harassment claim, but you don’t have an individual representing the victim’s gender at the table, you need to bring in your most senior partner of that gender.

One of the most important strategies law firms sometimes use when communicating a message internally to staff is to send those messages through senior legal assistants. If you’re not including those people at the table, your messages might backfire. It’s important to remember that a firm is a community of a lot of different people at all levels, so it’s critical to look beyond titles.

And in the case of a merger, it’s important to notify top clients of both firms and other important people before the deal is announced in the press. So when developing messages, involve spokespeople, senior leadership and other key voices concerning whatever situation you’re facing.

An important part of a crisis response plan is determining when and how to respond to media inquiries. When does a firm risk looking disingenuous by giving a “no comment” response? When does a firm prolong negative press by responding? Are there guidelines or a “rule of thumb” you recommend firms consider when deciding how best to engage with media?

It’s very important to know your firm culture. We often base our response strategies on whether a firm leader is known to communicate openly and often. Analyzing a firm’s culture, mission and vision for “who a firm wants to be,” allows you to affect change in that regard over time. As you rank your crisis scenarios, consider where your firm stands on these issues. It’s important to stand by what you believe in than to alter it simply because you’re getting pressure from the media.

If you are a thoughtful firm with thoughtful leaders who are prepared to address key crisis situations, you probably have something positive to say about nearly everything. Lawyers often have a knee-jerk reaction to say “no comment” and not share what’s happening in their organization. That may be a bad strategy long-term because they’re not giving themselves the benefit of the doubt that they do have something positive to say and that they do work hard to create a positive environment. It’s ok to say, “We weren’t expecting this to happen. We are looking at the situation and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.” Then, responding to say “This is difficult for us and we’re going to be working on this,” is a valid response and it’s a thoughtful one.

During the webinar, you recommended including a crisis call form/media log? Tell us what that should look like.

A media log enables you to have an organized record of media inquiries. It enables you to watch trends. Over time the log can remind you of recurring stories and you can use it as a place to gather data. It also reminds you to gather the right information from reporters by asking things like, “What’s your deadline? What’s the best way to reach you? Can you send a list of questions in advance?” For each client, we keep a master media list that includes reporter engagements and requests that we track in crises or proactive media relations.

Are there general guidelines you recommend firms follow when negotiating terms for interviews during crises?

I would go on background less than I’d go off the record. On background interviews increase your chance of being uncovered. But do an analysis of the journalist before going off the record as well. If we don’t know a journalist, we’ll sometimes call another agency to get intel and to verify the reporter’s integrity. Often times, offering a written statement is safer and faster than sitting down for an interview. But, bear in mind, journalists can print a portion of a statement – they don’t have to print the whole thing.

It’s perfectly fine to ask a reporter if he or she will send questions in advance. It helps you prepare, but it also helps you give information the reporter wants. PR people should feel free to ask if they can join an interview. Journalists sometimes get frustrated by this, so it’s ok to say, “They don’t do a lot of interviews and they’ve asked me to sit in on it.” Honesty is the best policy.

If you pursue an interview on background, you can negotiate the terms and how your source is referenced. Such as, “a managing partner at an AmLaw 50 firm in the Northeast,” or that they use the information only after a decision comes out. Be sure about what you are trying to accomplish by going on background as the information you give may be referenced now or in later stories.

It’s beneficial to help journalists as much as you can in order to develop mutually beneficial relationships with them. Resist the urge to only feed them stories about my firm. I want to tell them about things that are happening in the community, comment on trends or connect them with other sources. Once you’ve developed a relationship with a journalist, it becomes easier to negotiate interview terms, especially when a crisis develops.

What are the most common mistakes firms make when developing a crisis communications plan?

One mistake is to just put a crisis plan on a shelf. Another is to not take preparedness to the next level by running a crisis scenario. Pretend a firm is hit with a malpractice suit. Hire an IT agency to run a phishing exercise. Conduct a mock interview. But most scenarios are managed by people who know an exercise is coming. It’s important to disrupt their day because no one knows when a crisis is going to happen.

What are the most common mistakes firms make in responding to a crisis?

Sometimes leaders just need to make a decision. They may have advisors who weigh in with differing opinions. At the end of the day, leaders need to trust their instincts as well as their firm’s mission and values. It’s ok to admit a mistake. But lawyers often fear liability. What’s the solution – not just the message?

Look at the situation as an opportunity. Is the situation not causing you – but rather than allowing you – to make fundamental change as a leader? The one thing that takes away insecurity is communication. I found early on in the COVID-19 crisis, leaders were very reassuring to employees and clients when they said something like, “This is a highly unusual situation. But we’re in this together and we’re going to do what we can to stay the course. We’re not going to jump the gun by making financial cuts or other rash decisions.”

Timing can be daunting. If you are a firm of 1,000 lawyers and you have to communicate with partners before associates, and then staff and clients before the media – that’s a lot of audiences to manage. It’s important that leaders not to get bogged down by group consensus. Just lead.

What in your opinion, are the three most important things a firm can do to successfully handle a crisis?

Be humble, empathetic and committed to communicating. Be honest. And keep communicating throughout, after and beyond the crisis situation.

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Webinar : “Coronavirus Crisis Communications - The Pivot From Denver to Digital

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