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How not to make a crisis out of a drama

If your firm is at the centre of a public storm, survival may depend on having planned ahead and using social media wisely, says Kevin Poulter

No lawyer ever expects to be at the centre of a crisis, but from time to time it happens. A crisis is unexpected and, by definition, unwanted. It might come from something you have done, an attack against you or your firm, or it could be a client matter that you simply get caught up in. As much as we all might think we cope well under pressure, without forethought and forward planning, a crisis may get the better of us (or our client) and what we do, or don’t do, could make matters worse.

During a crisis situation, communication is key – whether that is internal communication within the firm or organisation, or communicating a message to an individual or the wider public. No matter how a crisis arises, social media will inevitably be involved. It might even be the cause!

Social media moves fast, and so must you. But too often, speed becomes the only concern. Nipping it in the bud might sometimes work, but in intense situations an innocent, off the cuff remark can inflame a situation rather than quash it. Instead, it is important to draw breath before responding or commenting. Don’t get carried away on social media – it is at your convenience to serve you as a communications tool.

Have a comprehensive plan
Before you find yourself in a crisis, plan ahead and make sure anyone who needs to be involved is aware of the plan. For some firms, this might be simply the risk partner, managing partner and whoever is responsible for communications. There may be an outside PR specialist involved – often on a retainer for events just like this – and it is probably sensible to have the lawyer (or client) at the centre of the crisis available where possible. You may also, in some circumstances, be required to involve your insurer or even the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Planning is important to make sure people know they may be called on, what their (up to date) contact details are, and even who to turn to as an alternative.

If a client is involved or implicated, it may be sensible to ensure communications are coordinated and any reports are consistent. There may, however, need to be a separation in how you deal with things. If there is a risk of a breakdown in the commercial relationship (or it’s happened already) a unified voice may not be possible.

Acknowledge and then respond appropriately
Just looking to respond quickly disguises the multiple impacts that social media has on reputation – building, maintenance and protection. Of course speed is important, even if it only to acknowledge that you are aware of a situation and that you are investigating. By leaving a silence, there is a significant risk that the void will be filled by unhelpful voices, unfounded reports or allegations.

Don’t be rigid
Social media also provides for a more direct line of communication, with individuals or the press. A defence or response is stronger when it is from the horse’s mouth and cannot be filtered by the media. A social media presence is now expected, if not inevitable.

Social media can also be the human voice of what might otherwise be a faceless corporate entity. But there is a balance. Innocent mistakes were once forgiven, but now they are barely tolerated. Again, take time to think before responding and be aware of how your messages might be viewed in future – possibly in litigation.

Just as a press office can be run from the site of any activity, there is no reason why social media can’t be run in real time from there as well. Live tweeting and images could show what is really happening and you can add your commentary along the way.

Establish a confident social media presence before the crisis comes
To really be effective, an organisation’s social media presence needs to be established in advance of any crisis. That enables it to have a reputation for authenticity so that whatever comes out of that channel is treated seriously and not mistaken for opportunism or even a parody account.

Reputation takes time and effort to build and is founded on trust and transparency. It is worth more than social media, but social media can bring it to its knees.

However, the central rules of crisis management apply whatever the channel of communication that you are using – apologising, getting to the bottom of what is going on, putting senior leaders in charge, providing new information as it becomes available, feeding the media, not allowing vacuums to build, and not letting the pundits and ‘experts’ take charge. There also needs to be a consistency in message and you can’t let social media wander off on its own. Most of all: think first.

 

 

 

 

 

Kevin Poulter

About Kevin Poulter

Kevin Poulter is a partner and head of employment at Child & Child. He writes regularly for Legal Voice on social media for lawyers. He is on Twitter (@kevinpoulter) and has a blog covering social media and legal issues at kevinpoulter.com

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