By Michelle Samuels
In May, FBI Director James Comey’s name was added to a roster that already included Michael Flynn and Sally Yates, as he became another high-profile official who was publicly dismissed by President Trump.
Comey’s firing was notable for its abrupt nature as well as for how its announcement was characterized by many as being handled haphazardly by the White House communications staff. Dealing with the fallout from the conflicting stories being told about Comey’s firing by himself and his aides, President Trump even took to Twitter a few days after the initial announcement, among other things, threatening to cancel press briefings.
While law firms may not ever have to handle a departure as controversial as that of James Comey, there are three basic rules regarding how to intelligently handle lawyer and staff departures that every firm should embrace. Whether the personnel change is planned weeks in advance or evolves quickly over a matter of days or even hours, law firm management needs to be prepared to handle the dissemination of the news, and to convey it clearly and consistently to staff, clients and the media as well as other interested audiences.
1.) Have a sound plan
The image painted by the media of White House press secretary Sean Spicer “hiding in the bushes” to avoid reporters is certainly one that your firm will not want to convey when it receives media inquiries about your personnel changes. News reports after the Comey firing said that Spicer and his team were not well-informed in advance. This presumably gave them little time to come up with a game plan for handling and addressing the news, likely spurring the impromptu staff meeting near (not in) some bushes outside the White House.
As with any business, law firm management must be able to effectively deal with scenarios involving both expected and unexpected changes. A firm may have spent weeks discussing layoffs and have key message points already laid out. On the other hand, perhaps a key rainmaker abruptly walked out and joined a new firm, leaving little time for the original firm’s communicators and leadership to strategize on how to convey the news.
In any case, the key to a successful transition period is to get ahead of the story and tell it on your own terms and in your own words – because if you don’t, others will likely tell it for you. The first step is always to put together a sound, comprehensive communications plan that addresses these at least these questions:
- What are the details of the situation do I need to convey?
- Who needs to be told about this news?
- When do the various audiences need to be notified?
- Does the firm have a statement for the media that effectively conveys a clear and non-negative message about the situation, and if so, who should convey this message to the media?
- How will the firm handle incoming questions about the news, and who is best equipped to address those?
2.) Get on the same page – and fast
One of the most confusing aspects of Comey’s public firing (and those of Michael Flynn and Sally Yates before him) was the inconsistency of the messaging regarding the reasons behind the shakeup – President Trump, Sean Spicer and other spokespeople often told different stories or versions of the story.. This quickly gave the media an easy opportunity to focus on the discrepancies in what they said, rather than the messages they were trying to communicate.
What lesson can and should be gleaned here? Get on the same page – and fast. Make sure everyone involved in the distribution of information has the same facts immediately and is instructed to convey the pertinent details to everyone consistently. If possible, try to appoint a single spokesperson as it is natural for everyone to have their own spin and perspective on any scenario, and this is especially true if there is any hint of controversy or scandal. What’s more, any variations in the message can give the media reason to poke holes in the information. With one clear, unified and consistent message, the media is more likely to focus on the message itself, rather than how or by whom it was delivered.
3.) Be prepared to back up your story
Much of the Comey firing drama centered on the changing narrative disseminated by White House spokespeople and representatives, which wasn’t consistent with earlier statements made by President Trump. This was particularly evident when earlier statements and tweets made by President Trump were brought up by reporters looking to refute some of the “new” narratives that began to surface courtesy of White House staff members who apparently had various talking points that they were tasked with highlighting.
What this means for law firms is that the communicators assigned to speak to the media about departures or other personnel changes must be prepared to support their claims with facts and make sure the facts already out there fit into the narrative they are telling – consistently. And the same rules apply when communicating changes to clients as well as internally at the firm.
For example, if someone (or a group) left the firm because their practice did not fit with the strategic direction in which the firm wishes to go, that should be explained and backed up with data or other relevant facts. If the information makes sense, reporters and other audiences will appreciate your taking the time to explain the reasoning behind the news.
If there are layoffs, the firm should find a way to communicate that news in a way that shines a positive light on the firm and takes the high road for all parties involved. Negative stories about law firm developments often appear when the firm either was not contacted or refused to share information for the story, or when the firm’s messages fall flat. Oftentimes, being transparent is a more strategic approach to ensuring that the message that you want to communicate is actually communicated.
As for internal and client-related communication, if firm leadership doesn’t convey the story effectively, the rumor mill will get to work. Remember: A message based on nothing is just spin, but if you have facts to back up your message, then you are armed and ready to face the media.
Michelle Samuels is a vice president of public relations at Jaffe, where she specializes in raising the visibility of law firms through strategic media relations campaigns. She is a member of the Northeast Regional Communications Committee.
Editor Liz Cerasuolo is Director of Communications at Fish & Richardson. She also serves as president-elect of the LMA Northeast board and sits on the LMA diversity & inclusion task force.