The Rule of the 5 W’s Even Works in a Crisis – It just Works a Lot Faster
Every law firm should have a basic crisis communications plan in place by now. Such plans were once only the domain of large, multi-national corporations or companies that were involved in risky or injury-prone industries. But today, the gloves are off and the highly charged media environment, whether it’s social media or television reporters, means that a crisis plan is a priority for even the smaller firm.
Talking about a crisis plan begs the question: what exactly is a crisis for a law firm? A crisis can occur on several levels. It can affect the law firm because it is affecting the firm’s clients. In fact, the firm’s representation may be based on the crisis itself or the matter may result in some type of financial crisis befalling the company. The crisis may also directly concern the firm or one of its attorneys. It may involve the behavior of one of the lawyers. It may even extend to the potential for layoffs at the firm. Whatever the crisis is, suffice it to say it is a situation that must be addressed quickly and with careful consideration of the messages that will be released.
Journalists practice the simple concept of the five W’s in their writing. The W’s are generally who, what, where, when and why and the basic approach is to answer each one within the first couple of paragraphs in the story. This approach works for a law firm as well when it begins to respond to a crisis. The difference for the firm, of course, is that the five W’s need to be answered quickly and with as much detail as the situation will allow.
Even addressing the five W’s does not mean that a law firm will emerge from a crisis intact. Perhaps the best thing for a firm to do initially is to focus on some basic values. Do what Police Sgt. Joe Friday used to tell people he wanted on the old television show “Dragnet.” He wanted “just the facts, ma’am.” No more, no less. Try to get to the basics – the facts – and if you cannot determine them right away, don’t be afraid to say “We don’t know at this time.” Starting from this vantage point will help to avoid any allegations of lying to cover up an already difficult situation.
Now, back to those 5 W’s and how to address them in a crisis. First, the “who”: Who should be the front person or spokesperson for the firm in a crisis? Should it be the managing partner? Or would having the managing partner speak bring too much weight to the issue? Sometimes, having someone else, whether it’s another partner or an administrator speak, gives less attention to the matter and may help to decrease the level of attention. Determining in advance the types of matters that the managing partner will address will help to solve the “who” question quickly if and when a crisis occurs.
Next, let’s address the “when.” Speed is usually of the utmost importance in a crisis. It is best to gather as much information as possible as quickly as possible, but sometimes getting information out to calm the situation takes precedence over having all the answers. A good rule of thumb is to try and make some type of statement within 24 hours of a crisis. Waiting much longer opens doors to too many opportunities for the media (and others within the firm perhaps) to speculate on what is really happening.
The “what” is closely aligned with the “when.” Again, stating “We don’t know at this time” is all right and preferable to releasing statements that may have to retracted. Above all, in delivering what the crisis is, the rule of thumb is to tell the truth.
Complicating much of the crisis communication process today is the advent and significance of social media in the workplace. Rumors or what may be half-truths can become rampant, and keeping the firm’s communications on an even keel in response to this is a challenge in itself. Layoffs and internal matters such as discrimination suits which were once little known outside a law firm are today shared with one click of a computer key. Basically, nothing is sacred anymore.
With this in mind, the “why” of a crisis may be taken over by external communicators and that is not what you want. Being on top of as much of what is being spewed out by outsiders is very important. It takes a lot of monitoring and research. At the same time, living in fear of what outsiders are saying is not necessary either. In fact, approaching the Websites like Above the Law with less fear and more facts could probably result in less damage than if news is not acknowledged up front.
The “where” of a crisis for a law firm in “response” mode usually means where it should post its answer to the crisis. Using email to selected media is generally the most efficient way to communicate as well as putting the response on Business Wire or some other type of wire service. One-on-one meetings can also prove useful if the managing partner or another significant partner in the firm is serving as spokesperson. Only in selected situations would a press conference be considered and then only if absolutely necessary.
Overall, besides telling the truth, crisis communications works best when messages are simple. Whether the crisis is something horrific that has happened in the firm, a serious issue with a firm client or a pending layoff of lawyers and staff, taking the high road to communicating the issue and its results will keep things cleaner and clearer. It may not remove any level of shame, blame or name-calling, but it can help to reduce the “temperature” of the crisis – from boiling to simmering perhaps - and help the firm move beyond it.