On Tuesday 29th April, I attended PR Week’s Summit 2014. Kingsley Napley sponsored this inaugural conference, with my colleague David Rowntree presenting on crisis management issues in the context of criminal investigations. From a personal perspective I was fascinated to talk with the senior PR professionals in attendance. One thing which struck me was that PR professionals, who naturally want to communicate the position when there has been an incident, can feel frustrated at lawyers whose advice “kills” their draft communications. I was sorry to hear this, as in my own professional life I have had a good collaborative relationship with PR professionals.
It is easy for lawyers, especially when outside their comfort zone, to simply stamp out any form of public statement on a potentially litigious situation. We know, from experience, that statements made when a story initially breaks are often thrown back at the maker in Court as evidence. By then, facts not known at the time have subsequently come to light.
Often there are very good reasons for such an approach. For instance, David Rowntree in his talk explained to the Summit that during criminal proceedings, when an individual such as a company director has been arrested, it is not just that what is said at the time of an arrest may be used in evidence in criminal proceedings (a serious consideration in itself!) – simply making a public statement on the allegations may be seen as an attempt to pervert the course of justice, landing the maker of the statement in contempt of court.
Of course, criminal proceedings are extremely serious, putting liberty, company reputation and financial performance on the line.
But in other legal situations, lawyers should accept that, commercially and practically, saying nothing may be far more damaging.
So “what statement shall we put out”?
The answer really is that it depends, but an experienced legal advisor will:
- be familiar with the particular PR approach of your organisation (which of course differs if you are public sector, private sector or an individual), and sector;
- be aware that the PR value of a response decreases the longer you wait to issue it;
- realise the value to an organisation of being seen to be transparent and engaging;
- understand how different channels are used for PR;
- understand the meaning conveyed by particular words;
- be willing to have a dialogue with a PR professional, rather than just “striking through” a draft statement. The PR professional can explain the importance of making a particular statement in this particular case, and the lawyer can explain the perceived risks of any particular phrases or approach;
- understand how to make an effective and measured holding statement; and
- get a “feel” for the particular circumstances of the incident – knowing whether it is one in which to give a carefully worded statement, or to hold fire until more is known.