#CoronavirusSA: In crisis, the binary power of legal+comms
by Candice Luis (@candicedl) Covid-19 is presenting legal and crisis teams, never mind businesses in totality, with unprecedented challenges; and now, more than ever, we need to come together as we navigate this uncharted territory.
When crisis strikes, it’s all hands-on deck. Have you stopped, however, to consider that this reaction often creates disharmony and a lack of effective action? A crisis isn’t always about how many ‘hands’ are on deck but, rather, more about how these ‘hands’ are working together.
In my experience, a reaction of merely getting everyone involved in the crisis, for the sake of it, creates a massive power struggle in war rooms today. You may start to create divisions — legal vs comms, marketing vs leadership and external vs internal — resulting in a disjoint in how to take things forward and whose way is the ‘right way’.
Today, as we face one of the biggest global crises the world has seen in decades, if not a century, we are reminded of this exact dichotomy.
The crisis power struggle
In the handling of crisis today, becoming side-tracked by internal power struggles is bound to impact any success. Slower response times, the creation of silos (which leads to ineffectively identifying the true impact of the crisis), market confusion and anger and internal failings to staff, partners and stakeholders, both from legal and reputational standpoints, is the last thing businesses need right now, especially as we all try to remain relevant and stay ahead of our competitors in a market that’s fighting for survival in the first place.
When a crisis becomes more about the battle between comms and legal, as opposed to the actual issue at hand, you have a much-larger problem.
Let’s face it, unless you’re Olivia Pope, the fixer from tv series Scandal, chances are your voice won’t be the only one heard and so, for any business navigating the impact of a real crisis, collaborating with all your experts is absolutely key. If a unified voice and approach to market isn’t agreed to across all stakeholder channels, one that’s given real consideration to both the legal and reputational side of things, then it doesn’t matter how often you communicate as it won’t have the impact or outcome your business needs.
A crisis isn’t your battle to win. And certainly, where we sit today, this battle won’t be won alone. It sounds strange, I know, but winning isn’t the derived result; rather, surviving through a crisis is understanding what’s the best outcome for the client (or market), no matter which side of the fence you sit. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, this crucial understanding is what is making or breaking brands right now. As we watch each brand follow its moral compass in a crowded space, the ones getting it right are the ones that are closely aligning to their human side while intricately understanding and applying the implications of this from a legal perspective. Right now, we are treading a very fine line as the need for humanity far exceeds any legal aspects in the eye of the public.
Success through collaboration: building a trust relationship
Today, with the ubiquity and speed of social media, the impact of a crisis is a very real everyday concern for brands; therefore, ensuring responsiveness — that takes legal security and reputational management (and recovery) into account — is critical.
If we consider that it may take 1–3 years for a brand to recover from a reputational crisis, then it’s certainly evident that financial risk is more than legal action, a dropping share price and loss of clients. The impact of reputational issues on financial sustainability over time is very closely linked. Again, this couldn’t be more relevant right now. Businesses truly need to find the balance between what they’re saying and doing over this time, and how this outreach and approach would impact them reputationally. The compounding impact of reputational damage, on top of a health crisis, could mean bad news.
In an ideal world, and not considering where we find ourselves at this very minute, comms teams need to bring themselves closer to the legal team/lead, prior to crisis. But how? And who is responsible?
Trust-based relationships drive success. Unfortunately, though, too often this trust doesn’t exist between legal and comms, especially as the first time you meet is when the ship is about to sink! So, it’s up to us, as comms consultants, to really build these relationships before there’s even a hint of crisis to ensure we can demonstrate our capabilities, understand legal parameters and properly build a solid working relationship. For me, this means connecting with the legal team from the outset of a client relationship and knowing who the team members are and really engaging around what’s important to both parties — all of which will go a long way, during a time that our client needs us the most: a crisis.
Response, transparency & humanness vs facts
If you consider that the fastest emotion to spread online is rage, then we have an important role to play in ensuring the quickest, most-accurate (but ‘human’) response possible is given to the market. All comms specialists understand that owning the rhetoric, as far as possible, is vital, especially if you want to ensure the market is left with as little room as possible to speculate and drive further negative enticement.
When legal and communications work together, we are able to do just this.
What we need to aim for is the ability to optimise two specific risk-based needs, create a response that is driven by transparency, drive factual information that is intrinsically underpinned by humanness, and cut out the ‘red tape’ between these two fundamental factions, which is massively beneficial to the client. It’s not enough to say “I want my life back” when your company caused the worst oil spill in history. Strong comment backed by a risk-based thought process should be delivered with speed and certainty, which can only be done, if all stakeholders, including comms and legal, are working together from the get-go.
A case in point
During a potential case of a crisis for one of my clients, I ‘made friends’ with a company’s local legal counsel — someone who has intrinsic insight into the history of the business, previous legal parameters of the case and who had the facts at hand. Together we worked closely to understand these facts, the potential impact on the reputation of the business and brainstormed what the potential outcome would be. Bear in mind that this isn’t unusual behaviour for any potential crisis; the difference is that this is usually done in silos and, by the time a crisis hits, legal and comms are on different ends of the plan. Having worked together for some months, we had built a solid trust relationship; I trusted that he would give me the absolute detail and legal counsel trusted that I would strongly consider the impact of what we say on the legal risk framework. We consulted together. It worked.
The reality is that crisis in today’s connected world is inevitable and so, if we hope to truly move towards ‘getting it right’ in a social community that’s largely unpredictable, we need to get closer to one another, drop the ego and really collaborate for optimal outcomes. Imagine a crisis where legal and PR can turn around a strong, factual, risk-averse but authentically human response around to the market in one hour! This is the power of legal and comms working and building trust together in crisis.
Candice Luis (@candicedl) is an experienced crisis specialist, marketing and communications consultant and business director who is digitally inclined and strategy-prone. She has spent the better part of 13 years harnessing the power of communications, and brand crises make her tick.
This MarkLives #CoronavirusSA special section contains coverage of how the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and its resultant disease, covid-19, is affecting the advertising, marketing and related industries in South Africa and other parts of Africa, and how we are responding. Updates may be sent to us via our contact form or the email address published on our Contact Us page. Opinion pieces/guest columns must be exclusive.