Preparing for crisis communications

 It is not enough for Chambers to put in place a crisis communication strategy. They must be prepared to act on it quickly…..

The legal sector is not immune to the negative repercussion of a poorly managed crisis. This can stem from a badly managed merger and acquisition, staff redundancy or a disgruntled employee. Add to this the growing likelihood of issues such as theft and loss of sensitive data, and investigations and audits revealing misconduct or corruption.

Chambers may have tightened up after a warning issued by the information Commissioner’s office (IC0) in 2014, following 15 security breaches at law firms1. However, as the legal sector implements new technologies that store sensitive data beyond Chambers’ walls, it is prudent to plan for when a data breach occurs, not if. As recently as January 2017, the ICO was still finding it necessary to warning that it is against the law to take clients’ personal information to a new firm. Historically, Chambers have granted barristers a high degree of trust when it comes to handling client data, but that is no longer enough. Access security needs to be nailed down, while at the same time concrete plans must be put in place for an inevitable data breach at some point.

Bad news travels increasingly quickly. A survey by Freshfields Bruckhaus Derringer LLP2 found that ‘more than one-quarter of crises spread to international media within an hour and over two-thirds within 24 hours’. Despite this, many legal professionals remain stuck in traditional processes, waiting for senior staff to be available to attend meetings, developing an appropriate response and getting management approval. Even though six out of 10 cases provide days or months of notice for businesses to react, the survey found that it still takes an average of 21 hours for companies to respond.

In the ‘post-truth’ era there is also a risk that a falsehood with a negative effective on the chamber or barrister may gain traction. “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on,” according to Mark Twain or possibly Winston Churchill – ironically the fact of who said this is not established. Bad press and negative sentiment on social media may combine to have a significant impact on the brand reputation of any Chambers or barrister, and a negative effect on client goodwill and the Chamber’s potential appeal to lawyers considering working there.

 As the scout motto suggests “Be prepared”

It pays to plan a crisis management strategy before a crisis occurs. Here are five steps to develop a strategy:

  • Brainstorm possible crisis scenarios. Consider a number of angles, from regulatory issues to employee incidents, from fire, flood and physical security through to data breaches. These are likely to include scenarios that have not in the past been a major factor for Chambers, but might well occur in the future. Consider all the risks introduced by new ways of working with data as a result of technology or new business arrangements with arising from merger and acquisition.
  • Build a crisis team. This should include key stakeholders from all the scenarios you have envisaged, but try to keep your team to just five or six people, otherwise it will become unwieldy and decision-making will slow down. Of course, counsel with a good background in the legal aspects of reputation management is important and this may be available in-house. Media relations expertise, incorporating social media capability, may be less readily available in-house but is equally vital for responsive social media communications and effective interaction with journalists and editors.
  • Draw up a plan for crisis communications. Brevity and clarity is key. This document should contain a clear flowchart of the chain of decision-making – and allow for the eventuality of key individuals being on holiday. It should contain contact details for the key members of the crisis team and the media relations person.
  • Test your crisis communications plan and make sure it works. There is no substitute for a real-world crisis to test how well a crisis communications plan works and it is difficult to replicate this theoretically. Taking a pragmatic approach, it is possible to work through some elements of the plan – for example, make sure everyone’s contact details work and test how long it takes to bring together the team and get in touch with your media relations person. Share your review of the imaginary scenario and your planned response throughout the Chambers and asked the question, “If this had really happened, did we do everything we should have done?”
  • Monitor online conversations. This way you are ready to pick up negative sentiment as it happens and respond in a timely way. An efficient and effective response may even convert a complainant into an active brand advocate. A ‘Service Recovery Paradox’ occurs when people have a more positive view of your firm following failure and recovery than if there had been no failure at all. If the complainant then shares their experience on social media, the positive reputational impact multiplies.

It is not enough for Chambers to put in place a crisis communication strategy. They must be prepared to act on it quickly in the first instance and in the longer term to continue to reassure clients and other parties that they have properly addressed the incident. Chambers that have a detailed crisis communication strategy in place, including plans for what happens days and months after the initial crisis has passed, will be in the best possible position to mitigate any damage.

By Lena Ahad, Director, Technology PR

About the author

Lena Ahad is founder & director of Technology PR, Finalist for the best Legal PR/Media Comms Awards, 2016 Halsbury Legal Awards. For further information visit www.technologypr.eu or follow on Twitter @technologypr_eu

References

1 Computing Magazine, ICO issues warning to law firms, 2014 http://www.computing.co.uk/ctg/news/2359033/ico-issues-warning-to-law-firms-following-string-of-data-breaches

2 Freshfields Bruckhaus Derringer LLP, 2013 survey, ‘Containing a Crisis’

http://www.freshfields.com/uploadedFiles/SiteWide/News_Room/Insight/Campaigns/Crisis_management/Containing%20a%20crisis.pdf

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