Six Things Every Attorney Should do When Hiring and Managing a Communications Team
As the CEO of a strategic communications firm in Los Angeles, I frequently work with lawyers. Whether my client is a high-profile individual in the middle of active litigation, a nonprofit engaged in a public education campaign or a large corporation getting ahead of a story — good or bad — there is a legal team at the center of the action.
As I have seen time and again, great working relationships with counsel mean better results for our mutual client. Below are six tips for attorneys to effectively hire and manage a strong communications team to support your client’s goals.
1. Rely on professionals who truly understand how the communications environment has changed.
In just a couple of years, the skillset, contacts and knowledge required of top-notch communications professionals working on high-profile crises and legal issues have shifted dramatically. From the transformation and decline of traditional journalism to the rise of digital platforms to spread messages and protect reputations, to the challenges of hacking and information warfare, we are all operating in a brave new world. Make sure the people driving your communications strategy are not operating according to legacy models with outdated information. You and your client need communications professionals who are fluent in this new media landscape.
To determine this, you could ask them questions like: How will you manage our digital ecosystem around the press? What is your tactical approach to amplifying positive stories? How will you help us to navigate if negative comments are bubbling up on social media or damaging our SEO?
2. Find team players.
It is critical that your communications partner sees the complete picture — not just their piece of the puzzle. Sometimes a course of action is vital for the legal strategy and terrible for the PR strategy. Or vice versa. You need a partner who will be able to work collaboratively with the rest of the team to understand and prioritize the client’s most important objectives. When making complex decisions with multiple considerations, the client — not the ego of a service provider — must always come first.
3. Choose partners who see risks, not just opportunities.
I often tell clients that my job is to be paranoid. Every media and communications strategy has to consider not only the potential benefit in terms of positively shaping a public narrative but also the potential costs if a story or message doesn’t land the way you intended.
Sometimes it makes sense to take calculated risks. However, great communications strategists can understand those risks while gaming out the third, fourth and fifth-order consequences of a move — and give clients sound advice based on their goals and the potential and probable outcomes.
4. Don’t do your communications person’s job for them.
Just as an attorney wouldn’t ask a communications professional to appear in court for them, lawyers shouldn’t be relied upon to develop media messaging or drive communications strategy. Yet, too often, because many lawyers are brilliant people and serve as the quarterback of the team, this is what happens de facto. It doesn’t always work out so well.
While most lawyers are great writers, they sometimes miss the mark writing media statements like briefs filled with jargon and legalese, rather than as the quotable, punchy response a client might need. In an ideal world, the communications team runs point on strategy and message development, consulting closely with the attorneys who can veto ideas or amend statements for legal reasons.
5. Hire people who understand the world you inhabit — and who have the experience to prove it.
Most PR professionals, including many who label themselves as “crisis managers,” have never stepped foot inside a courtroom, worked on a high-profile case or handled a sensitive matter with legal implications. How could they possibly get hired to manage communications on behalf of a legal team?
I’ve seen it happen many times — most often when I’m brought in to clean up a mess that was created when someone’s friend/relative/boyfriend “in PR” was hired in a rush by a client to manage a sensitive matter and got over their skis. By then, it can be too late.
Unlike the legal profession, there is a very low bar for entry into the communications business. You only need a LinkedIn profile or a website to claim you are an expert. If your client has not done their diligence on a communications professional, offer to do it for them.
6. Engage your communications professionals before takeoff, not just during emergency landings.
There is sometimes an impulse — even when it is not legally necessary — to hold onto information and only let your communications team know that something is going to break right before or after it comes out. The earlier you bring the communications team in, the better everyone will fare. Crisis managers and communications professionals can only work with the information you give them — and sharing accurate, transparent information with all partners can make or break a communications program.
No matter the client or crisis, effective relationships between communications professionals and attorneys can make the critical difference between success and failure. Think ahead and invest in building this relationship early. When crisis strikes, you’ll be glad to have the right team behind you.
Originally posted July 13th, 2020 on Forbes.com