Who Should You Have at the Table in a Crisis?

“If something went wrong, should my company apologize? If so, how?”

As soon as a lawyer asked me those questions during a recent presentation on crisis management tips and communications, Zac Greene and I looked at each other. Zac chairs the Crisis Management Group at Miller and Martin, a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based law firm. We looked at each other because Zac and I discussed this very topic while we prepared for the event.

These questions are important for companies to consider during crisis communication planning. Often, lawyers and communicators have different answers – and both are based on valid concerns. In court, a strong admission of guilt may result in companies being held negligent and financially liable. In the court of public opinion, a weakly-worded apology can leave customers, employees or others affected feeling like the company is not doing or saying the right thing. So, how do you not compromise your case in court while trying to protect your company’s public image?

The answer really depends on the facts in each case, and there is no magic answer. This point, however, is always true: a company’s legal and communications advisers should work together before a crisis to agree on a messaging framework.

It takes time for legal and communications to work out their differences over messaging. Time is a luxury companies can afford before a crisis occurs. Proactive conversations also avoid making decisions based on pressure. Legal and communications are just two valuable perspectives for any company’s crisis communications team.

Below, we outline Jackson Spalding’s recommended lineup for crisis response planning.

Crisis Communications Team

  1. Chief Executive Officer/President – During crises, the buck stops with the organization’s top leader(s). First, they must call law enforcement if anyone is in harm’s way.  Next, they need to call their team together. They must set a tone that addresses the crisis is not about blame; it’s about managing the problem at hand. Correcting processes and preventing future mistakes happens later.
  2. Chief Legal Officer/General Counsel – Were any laws broken? To which laws will the company have to adhere? What are the legal implications of potential actions and communications? You want your lawyer in the room to answer these questions as you communicate.
  3. Chief Communications Officer – This person is your expert when it comes to communicating to internal and external audiences, staying faithful to the brand’s values while addressing the issue. Communications and Legal strike a balance in what to say and when. The CCO should ‘hold the pen’ when it comes to making a final decision on what to say.
  4. Chief Human Resources Officer – How does the crisis affect personnel? What compliance issues might occur? How can managers and leaders help deliver information and control misinformation? Your people must be able to trust their leadership, especially in a time of crisis. Anything that affects people is the HR officer’s domain.
  5. Chief Operating Officer – What impact will the crisis have on the day-to-day business? How can you insulate the rest of the business from the crisis so you can still serve clients and customers? What partners might be affected? Keeping the business going is their charge.
  6. External Crisis Support Counsel – Outside communications counsel can be vital. Professionals trained to remain objective and provide expert counsel help ensure you’re leaving no base uncovered for internal and external audiences.
  7. Situational Chair – You guessed it: This chair is filled based on the issue. For a data breach, it may be the CISO. For a financial issue, it may be the CFO. For a large transportation accident, it may be head of fleet management. Fill this seat as needed, but always go with the expert, regardless of title.

Still looking for more? Download our crisis communication plan. If you’re an attorney who’d like to learn more about how to win in the court of public opinion and the court of law, join us on March 18 for Tipping the Scales: Engaging the Media in a Crisis.