James Donnelly, senior vice president for crisis management at Ketchum, calmly frames a discussion of crisis communications strategy by Toyota, BP and Goldman Sachs in The New York Times this weekend. Donnelly takes care not to focus on the actions of a particular company, displaying respect for the work of other people and organizations. I sometimes see the opposite behavior from consultants, a desire to profit and self-promote at the expense of others.
A recurrent theme in the Times story is conflict between lawyers and communication strategists, shown in the excerpts below. The journalist, Peter S. Goodman, may actually be siding with the strategists. The story raises a question worth further discussion among friends in these professions: How can attorneys and communicators best work together in these scenarios? If this conflict is built-in from the start, rather than one side ‘winning’ against the other, how can it be resolved on behalf of the organization — which both teams are responsible for defending?
UPDATE: James Donnelly encourages communicators, attorneys and interested observers to participate in a poll on this question on his crisis management website, JamesJDonnelly.com.
“‘Companies that typically handle crises well, you never hear about them,’ says James Donnelly, senior vice president for crisis management at the public relations colossus Ketchum, who — like many practitioners contacted for this article — required elaborate promises that he would not be portrayed as speaking about any particular company. ‘There’s not a lot of news when the company takes responsibility and moves on. The good crisis-management examples rarely end waving the flag of victory. They end with a whisper, and it’s over in a day or two.’ …
“In times of crisis, communications professionals and lawyers often pursue conflicting agendas. Communications strategists are inclined to mollify public anger with expressions of concern, while lawyers warn that contrition can be construed as admissions of guilt in potentially expensive lawsuits.
“For BP, this tension burst into view in May, when executives went to Capitol Hill with officials from two of its contractors: Transocean, which owned the offshore rig that exploded, and Halliburton, which aided BP in drilling. Executives from the three companies each disowned culpability while pointing fingers at one another.
“‘What that screamed is the lawyers are in control,’ says Eddie Reeves, a former vice president for media relations at Merrill Lynch. ‘All it did was get everybody all the more peeved at them.’ …
“‘Toyota blew it,’ says Brad Burns, who ran communications at WorldCom, the telecommunications giant leveled by a 2001 accounting scandal. ‘It’s been the proverbial death by a thousand cuts. They knew they had problems long ago, whether it was a mechanical issue or operator error, but they knew they had an issue they had to deal with. And rather than put public safety over profits, they appear to have listened to the product liability lawyers and they totally lost it. It’s brand damage.’ …
“Above all, crisis management is conducted with stress and sleeplessness layered atop the usual factionalism and politics afflicting any big organization. Eric Dezenhall, a communications strategist in Washington who worked in the White House for President Ronald Reagan, is amused by crises as glimpsed in movies, where people sit at banks of synchronized computers, speaking calmly into headsets.
“‘The reality is absolute chaos,’ he says. ‘Nobody knows what the facts are. The lawyers are trying to get the P.R. consultants fired and the P.R. consultants are criticizing the lawyers. Everybody despises each other. It’s a totally unmanageable situation. A corporation in crisis is not a corporation. It is a collection of panicked individuals motivated by self-preservation.’”