In a crisis should we learn to love the lawyers?

About the author

Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR

As the dust begins to settle on the recent Care Quality Commission (CQC) debacle it’s worth standing back and looking at a couple of issues that it raises for PR professionals: namely what should the relationship be between PRs and lawyers and is it a really good idea to have the most senior PR representative on the Board?

There has been a spate of frightening NHS stories about poor care and high mortality rates.  This most recent one concerns the deaths of mothers and babies at University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust.  The CQC is charged with inspecting hospitals and apparently passed the hospital in question as satisfactory despite concerns around high death rates in its maternity unit. An independent report commissioned by the CQC and just published discovered that the organisation knew about the problems at the hospital last year but that officials ordered these findings be deleted.  Unfortunately, this new independent report removed or to use the technical term “redacted” the names of the people responsible for the so-called cover-up because of fear of breaching the Data Protection Act.  A clear case of lawyers making the crisis worse?

In a crisis the obvious instinct of a lawyer is to minimise the chance of any prosecution and any future compensation claims.  That usually means telling the organisation to minimise any public statements.  So there is an obvious clash with the classic PR crisis management principle of tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth.  The standard legal advice is relatively short-term when compared to the longer term view of reputation management taken by the PR professional.  In this particular case there was a clear gap between the forthright statements by the new management team e.g. “There is an old saying: the fish rots from the head …” and the decision not to name names.

You could also say that the standard legal view doesn’t take into account the needs of an organisation’s wider stakeholders in particular its employees and customers.  There is also a fair bit of evidence that shareholders are just as concerned with the reputation of a company in a crisis as with the threat of compensation pay-outs and legal action.  If you as a PR professional find your advice running counter to that of the legal department you might find this paper from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) an interesting read.  It takes a number of recent crises and plots them against share price and the amount of media coverage.  It shows that getting all the bad news out quickly helps investor sentiment and shortens the length of the media firestorm.

Better still make having a good relationship with the legal department a top priority before the crisis hits.  I once dealt with a particularly tricky situation when the legal department of the company I was working with insisted in having a lawyer sitting next to me when I took all media enquiries.  At first I was a little put out but over time I realised it had actually helped me as the lawyer soon got to understand how the media world worked and ended up as a great supporter!  It’s worth remembering how legal milestones in a crisis generate additional news hooks and having a friendly lawyer who understands your world on hand to point these out in advance gives you time to work out how best to deal with them.

Finally, I was interested to see (when we finally found out the names) that the Director of Communications at the CQC at the time of the original suppressed report was also the Deputy Chief Executive and therefore a member of the senior management team.  The PR community often presses to have senior management representation so it is humbling to see what happened in this particular case.  Perhaps this was a clash between short term management pressures and the longer term job of truly management reputation.