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After the Oil Spill: An Introduction to Crisis Management and PR for Attorneys

Every once in a while, things go wrong. Disastrously wrong. A corporate client is accused of mischief among its board members. A client in civil litigation is found to have withheld discovery documents without your knowledge. Or worse, a client’s product has led to serious injury or death.

The only company whose oil spill PR is rock solid.

Understanding crisis management public relations will help you know what to say, and when.

It can often be helpful to seize the opportunity to begin framing the discussion. Journalists are under incredible pressure to produce news, and first impressions will dominate the news cycle, sometimes for days. While it may seem to make sense to decline to comment before more facts to come in, know that others will fill the void with their own facts.

That being said, do not stray from what you know to be true. If you have been sufficiently briefed by your client, be ready to answer the following questions as best you can.

Q. What happened? Q. What is the company doing in response? Q. Are the allegations true? Q. If not, why not? Q. What is the company doing to make sure this never happens again? Q. What happens next?

If the facts are murky, but it’s clear there’s a problem that is harming the public, such as a serious oil spill, you can and should comment. Don’t apologize, per se, but in an empathetic voice tell the public your client is doing everything it can to learn the cause of the problem, and that it immediately began clean-up efforts. Pledge to work cooperatively with the relevant regulators, and share that the company has already begun to notify consumers or make amends by relocating them, or offering other emergency assistance.

The corporate apology is gaining ground, however. But this is best delivered by the CEO, not her or his attorney. The Wall Street Journal recently compiled a list of the 10 best video apologies from CEOs, for everything from service outages to a massive auto recall to stranded passengers. Skype CEO Tony Bates won the apology contest, saying the word “apologize” a mere 13 seconds into his message. (Note: Richard Brown, the CEO of Eurostar, took the shortest time to "apologize" at 5 seconds but was discounted for poor production value.)

Clients will have differing policies on issuing corporate statements during a time of crisis, and each case much be considered in its own context. Having a strong relationship with your client will make it easier for you both to make the right decision.

Susan Kostal is a legal marketing and media coach specializing in the Bay Area legal industry. Find more great content on Twitter @skostal.

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