Communications professionals are too willing to disclose information in a crisis which may lead to liability or future litigation, new research says.
According to a new report conducted by SenateSHJ and its PROI global network, in conjunction with crisis management expert and author Dr Tony Jaques, crisis lawyers from across Australia, NZ, the UK, US and Canada feel they should be leading their companies through times of crisis given concerns about the lack of legal awareness among communicators.
The report – “Crisis Counsel: What lawyers truly think of crisis communicators” – is the “first international research of its kind”, the authors proclaimed, to explore the specific challenge of conflicting legal and communication advice in the face of a crisis.
“The relationship between communications professionals and lawyers in a crisis is always important, often challenging and sometimes fraught. Yet it is key to protecting an organisation legally and reputationally,” said Dr Jacques.
“The interviews show the areas most prone to conflicting legal and communication advice [related] to disclosure and apologising. In the main, the lawyers believe communicators’ tendency to communicate openly and transparently results in a possible conflict between disclosure and potential legal liability.
“This relates to two separate but related concerns. First, messaging – what to say and how to say it. Second, disclosure – how much to say, how much to keep back, when to say it, and to whom.”
SenateSHJ partner Craig Badings added: “While some lawyers feel saying sorry creates the potential for conflict, from a reputation perspective liability alone should not stop doing what’s right. There are ways to say sorry and express compassion without admitting liability and importantly without compromising the organisation’s values.”
“What was heartening is many of the lawyers agreed with good sense on both sides, there is always a way to work through competing concerns to ensure the organisation is not unnecessarily exposed legally nor reputationally.
“Anyone who has been involved in a crisis will understand the need for quick decisions with little information, yet almost every lawyer interviewed emphasised the need for certainty before communicating.”
The report also found that making decisions in a crisis under time pressure with inadequate facts is seen as a major challenge for lawyers, and that such legal professionals strongly support face-to-face meetings with communicators to reduce conflict and achieve the best crisis strategies.
Further, although some lawyers believe conflict with communicators is not common, many still don’t trust communicators to do the right thing when a crisis strikes. They also believe that the main strength they bring to a crisis – ahead of legal expertise – is being calm and predictable.