What to do When the Ship is Sinking: A Guide to Crisis Communications

by KevinLivingston on April 10, 2012

Brobeck, Heller, Thelen, Howrey …Dewey?

Dewey & LeBoeuf, has become the latest law firm to be put in the spotlight by media as possibly the next place to go the way of the Dodo.

Watching it all go down from the inside is a tricky spot to be in. I have been there. Partners are leaving, the press has you in the crosshairs, rumors are flying both inside and outside the firm, partners are looking for a landing spot, staff are scared, etc. Managing communications is key in tense situations like one that Dewey is in and it can be challenging. Since the recession, having a great crisis plan has also become more of a necessity. So, here are some tips for Dewey and other firms that might be in “crisis”:

1. Don’t panic and be honest. It is pretty easy for the press to spot trends – read partner departures – and once this happens they are like a pit bull attached to your leg. They understand that law firms can be a house of cards and, as the lead above mentions, they have seen it before. Usually their suspicions are correct. Do not put your head in the sand.  A “No comment” is a bad strategy. Be honest and focus internal and external communication on the positive.

2. Internal communication. Management needs to try to right the ship and this requires a strong, yet subtle, internal communications plan to ease fears and keep people from leaving. Holding meetings to rally the troops will often have the opposite effect. The message will often be construed as “game over”.

I recommend a strategy of one-on-one communication delivered by partners to their associates and staff people. I also recommend regular, positive, messages by firm leadership in the form of e-mail or internal blog posts. Do not rely on portal messages. No one reads them. Start your own dedicated internal blog that pops up when employees log in. This should focus on business development, big wins, parties, pro bono, laterals, and anything else positive. Use lots of photos. The message: “This is a good place to work and not a sinking ship.”  But never actually say that.

3. External Communication. As I said earlier, the press will have the firm under a magnifying glass. This cannot be avoided so why try to duck it? It just makes them more suspicious and makes the firm look like it is hiding something. Embrace the press, particularly key reporters that the PR staff has good relations. The more you talk to the press the more they will believe what you are saying.

4. Select key reporters to talk to. You don’t have to answer every call that comes in. Pick the reporters you trust and talk to them. Engage in background and off-the-record conversations so they feel they have a true sense of what is happening. Provide official quotes later. By doing this, you avoid the cold calls; yet still fulfill the reporter’s needs for quotes. Reporters will call partners, associates, even secretaries to get their sense of what is happening. You want to control the message. A secretary fearing for his or her job is not the best spokesperson for the firm.

5. Select key spokespeople. The PR director, for the most part, should not be the spokesperson (just sometimes). Nor should the chairman or managing partner answer every question. Create a core (secret) group of partners to talk to the press. This group should consist of loyal and well-known rainmakers, practice leaders and basically folks that are both well known to reporters and not planning on leaving. This requires a leap of faith, but reporters will always want to know if the next big partner is planning on leaving. And those partners will get calls. The PR staff should advise them on talking points – basically, something along the lines of, “I get recruiter calls every day and I have no intention of leaving. I love this place.”

6. The role of the PR director. Although I said above that the PR director should not be the spokesperson, he or she actually should be. What I mean is that the press should not be informed of this responsibility. The PR director should control all incoming calls and advise on strategy and response. All attorneys should be aware to contact the PR director on all press calls and not respond independently. At the same time, the PR director should inform reporters that he or she is not a spokesperson unless given permission by the chairman or managing partner. This works on several levels. First, it buys time. By not being a designated spokesperson the PR person can tell a reporter that he or she will call them back with a response from management. Second, the PR person is also free to ignore the question by explaining, I don’t have the authority to respond and the partner I need to speak with is traveling (or in meetings). Many times deadlines will pass before you can get that response. But it is not an “no comment”. Sneaky, maybe, but this is a game after all.

7. What happens when a key partner or group does leave? Officially: “We wish them all the best”. On background: “They were not profitable and their realization rate sucked. They were not that important.”

8. What do you do when it is too late? As often happens in these situations, you get to a point when reality sets in and the firm is done. At this point come clean and go out on a high note. “This was a great firm with a rich history and, unfortunately, the economic realities are what they are. This is a sad day for everyone here.”

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