This article was originally published in Law.com’s Business Daily Review.
At some point in time, every corporate attorney will be faced with a client going through a crisis requiring effective management and communication. Managing a corporate crisis is likely one of the most stressful and trying events any CEO or business owner will experience, and it is your job to counsel your client to a successful outcome.
Amid such a crisis, there is an important rule to which you and your client must adhere: communicate.
Winning in the court of legal opinion but losing in the court of public opinion is not a scenario any client wants to celebrate. That is why attorneys should counsel their clients to communicate with key audiences and resist the temptation to keep things in-house.
Attorneys and their clients would be wise to keep in mind these five benefits of effective communication:
1. Communicating Controls the Narrative
It is common knowledge that “perception is reality.” Communication enables you and your client to shape your audience’s perception. Failing to construct a crisis communications strategy that publicly tells your side of the story means you are leaving the public square to your opponents, who will use this opportunity to seize control of the narrative and shape public perception. That narrative will undoubtedly not be in your favor.
The only way your client’s key audiences will know your side of the story, who was affected, what happened, why it happened, how it may affect them, and what you are doing about it, is if you tell them. Communicating information thoughtfully, consistently, and strategically empowers you and your client to control the narrative and influence public perception.
2. Communicating Preserves and Strengthens Goodwill
It takes years, maybe even decades, to create a company’s brand and the goodwill that goes with it, which means your client’s brand is only as strong as it was yesterday. Goodwill functions like an emotional bank account: you can tap into it to satisfy your supporters but only for so long.
In other words, key audiences might rely on the company’s goodwill to cast doubt on the prevailing narrative, but only for the short term. The longer your client fails to communicate, the more likely their supporters are to view the company as guilty, arrogant, hiding something, or not caring, all of which erode the brand’s goodwill.
Fortunately, the opposite is true: The better you administer your communications strategy, the more likely you and your client will preserve and even strengthen the brand and goodwill.
3. Communicating Commands and Demonstrates Control
There is no better way to maintain your audiences’ trust than to show and tell them that the company is in control of the crisis. Your audiences will generally be rooting for the company, which is why the sooner you enter the public square with a sound message, the easier it will be for you and your client to control the narrative and maintain that support.
Your effective message should convey that you have control over the crisis but also demonstrate how you have control and what you are doing about it. In this way, you are proving to your supporters that the goodwill you have earned is worthy of their ongoing trust.
4. Communicating Sympathy and Empathy Shows You Are Human
If you want to maintain your key audiences’ faith, you must speak to them as humanly as possible. Corporate speak and legalese are cold, removed, and unfeeling, which produces similar reactions in your audience.
In times of crisis, the audiences with whom you are communicating must feel that you can sympathize and even empathize with them.
In some cases, this means saying, “We are sorry.” Apologizing is not an acknowledgment of guilt. Your client will not be sued because they said they were sorry that customers have been harmed, hurt, or inconvenienced. If your client is responsible for negligence, then they are likely to be sued anyhow, but acknowledging customers’ pain may preserve some goodwill and aid your client in the marketplace.
Acknowledging sympathy in this way often cuts against the grain for attorneys, and there may be good reasons to be careful in how these sentiments are crafted. Just remember that what works in the court of legal opinion may not be well-suited for maintaining support in the marketplace.
5. Communicating Creates Future Opportunities
Assuming your client successfully obtains control over a crisis, conveys this control, and bolsters its hard-earned goodwill by appealing earnestly to their audiences, then opportunity awaits. Instead of spending months– if not years– and resources trying to (re)shine its tarnished brand, the company that successfully manages a crisis will spend that time and money seizing its future with even more goodwill and a stronger base of support.
Ultimately a crisis presents you and your client with an opportunity to prove its corporate value.
Attorneys should keep in mind, as they counsel clients through crises, that the court of legal opinion and the court of public opinion are pretty evenly matched. Winning the legal battle but losing in the marketplace yields a pyrrhic victory no one will celebrate.
Moreover, attorneys should make clear to their clients that the truth always gets out. Staying quiet during a crisis does nothing to prevent information from leaking. The only result silence achieves is making your client look guilty, arrogant, and untrustworthy once the public learns of the crisis.
An effective communication strategy will empower you and your client to control the narrative from the outset, preserve the company’s goodwill, demonstrate control, convey empathy, and turn that crisis into opportunity. If you and your client are facing a crisis, remember that you have one option: communicate.
Mark Sachs is the founder of Orwell Grey Strategic Communications. Based in South Florida, Orwell Grey uses the art and science of communication to get good people out of bad situations.