For the Legal vs. PR Cage Match

MMA Fighters

When a crisis hits, the first emotion is often fear. Fear of losing your job. Fear of losing the company money. And probably fear of getting sued for doing the wrong thing.

Managing that fear could go one of two extreme directions – protecting yourself at all costs or manipulating your way out of it. While these two extremes are human nature, they’re rarely the best long-term solutions.

Oftentimes it’s a balancing act of doing the right thing for those impacted in the crisis while protecting yourself from harmful litigation. And the two professions that can help you find this balance are often at odds with one another – legal and public relations.

Finding legal and PR teams that collaborate well with each other is difficult, but when you do, the results are well worth the effort during a crisis. To do this, you have to understand why PR and legal differ and know how to effectively consider their positions and make decisions that are right for your organization.

Here are some big-bucket differences that might help you navigate their seemingly contradictory consultation to make more effective decisions during crises:

The goal of an effective public relations professional isn’t to manipulate or spin as the TV shows and movies would lead you to believe. It’s to build mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics. Manipulating and spinning harm relationships.

In a crisis, this means your PR consultant is going to advise you on how to make the situation right with the individuals who may have been harmed in the crisis. Good PR consultants understand the importance of legal counsel, but err on the side of building relationships.

The goal of a legal team is slightly different. Legal is hired to ensure practices are legal and to protect you and your organization from harm due to claims or litigation. They aren’t always going to fight with claimants, because sometimes the law says they have been harmed and there’s precedent for them to be compensated. Good legal counsel understands the need to build mutually beneficial relationships with publics, but err on the side of protecting the business and its people from harm.

Both of these goals are noble and important for an organization to handle crises effectively.

Style and Approach
Style and approach is where PR and legal tend to look most at odds. PR strives to be friendly and create positive interactions with people no matter how angry they are with the organization or an individual. The PR professional simply wants to uncover the common ground between the individual or public and the company to create a healthy relationship.

Sometimes this means the PR professional is going to ask the company to do something that it normally wouldn’t do to create common ground. An example would be to allow an incredibly angry or upset resident out of their lease without penalty after a crisis occurs. Another example is PR’s common recommendation to apologize for perceived, not always actual, slights. The apology can help diffuse negative emotions to clear the way for a meaningful conversation.

These examples can give legal a lot of cause for concern. Letting someone out of their lease without penalty holds them to a different standard than you would hold any other resident. And apologizing for a perceived slight can often be misconstrued as an admission of fault or wrongdoing. That’s why legal’s style is often more formal and in line with how the company handles most matters, especially those in the lease agreement.

An example of this is commonly found in resident communications after an incident occurs. A legal drafted letter will often contain a statement to the effect of: “Safety and security is not the responsibility of the organization.” After someone is injured or even killed in an incident on site, this language rubs the public the wrong way, especially if the organization could have done something to prevent the incident from occurring or failed to recognize warning signs leading up to the incident.

Yet, this statement is often true. The police department and justice system are responsible for managing criminal activity, not an apartment community. But the community will be held responsible in the eyes of the public.

Finding the balance between legal and PR even in something as small as a sentence in a resident communication is an art, not a science. Knowing the difference between their perspectives is key to managing a crisis effectively.

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