What do clients in crisis really need from lawyers?
It’s no secret that investors love predictability and loathe uncertainty. It’s why C-suite professionals strive to increase the former and minimize the latter. And with ever-expanding pools of data and analytics at their disposal, tech-savvy executive teams can now forecast and manage the future better than ever. But analytics and the human imagination are limited.
For this reason, I believe that lawyers, regardless of their practice area, should have in their arsenal the skills and network of experts to help resolve an unforeseen issue for their clients.
Whether it’s a deal gone sideways or a short seller trying to tank a stock price through a social media smear campaign, good lawyers in 2022 need to know how to help. Any event—whether based in fact or not—that threatens to harm the reputation, operations, financial health or future success of an organization can be construed as a crisis.
Nearly every crisis management project I work on is led by a lawyer or team of lawyers. Good lawyers and crisis managers like me are trained to respond to these kinds of emergencies. For most of my career, I’ve likened myself and my colleagues to paramedics who know how to operate under intense scrutiny and time pressures.
For lawyers, that’s traditionally been understood as preparing for litigation, managing potential liabilities, conducting internal investigations, and reporting to management and the board. And for crisis communications shops like mine, it has meant anticipating how events will be construed by internal and external stakeholders, responding to media inquiries, and ensuring the dissemination of accurate and timely information and messages.
Beyond Xs and Os, be human
In the middle of a crisis, even the most accomplished executives can seemingly forget that they have agency. By showing them a credible path out of trouble, lawyers and good crisis managers provide them with a sense of control. It’s time that lawyers and crisis communicators lean into this part of their job and start training their up-and-coming associates to do the same. Doing so means returning to the fundamentals of client management that’s less about Xs and Os and more about being human, demonstrating empathy and building trust and relationships.
The very best of crisis professionals are more than legal and communications technicians who execute complex strategies in fast-moving, pressure-filled environments. We are also psychologists and therapists who know how to put clients at ease during stressful times and allow them to focus on their core functions—like keeping the ship afloat and managing antsy boards and investors.
This realization really hit home in guiding a client through a recent ransomware attack, which exposed sensitive client and employee information to the dark web. My team and I worked closely with our client and a team of lawyers to prepare for the worst. We crafted notification letters and regulatory disclosures, drafted media statements and tracked for internal and online sentiment.
Thanks to the dozens of hours we spent preparing the client to communicate with their valued stakeholders, the worst—media attention and the intense public scrutiny it brings—never came to pass. The benefit to the client here was clear: They maintained their reputation for being a safe harbor for sensitive information, and we saved them countless billable hours that might have spent responding to media inquiries and complaints from employees, clients and opposing counsel. The legal teams—and cyber insurer—benefited as well, having seen the risk of litigation reduced by transparent, effective and targeted communications.
Not making headlines is not uncommon. For all the crises that make it into the news, so many never do. But for clients, living with the possibility of a crisis becoming public can be terrifying.
The real value my team gave our client was peace of mind. In giving them what they needed strategically and tactically, we gave them something less tangible and even more valuable as well—a sense of control of the situation. Yes, control is often illusory, but that illusion allows us to manage stress.
I’ve found these areas the most salient in a crisis:
• Responsiveness. Probably the easiest way to make clients feel like you have their back is to be responsive. The confidence a client has in you is a valuable asset. But when a client is under intense pressure to respond to the media or questions from the board, an unanswered email or delayed call can quickly squander it. In addition to inspiring confidence, responding quickly helps clients feel like they are your absolute priority.
• Competence. There is no substitute for executing on what you are hired to do. Whether that be lawyering or communications, being good at your job, thinking creatively and helping your client stay three steps ahead of the adversary will help you stand out in a crowded field of competitors.
• Empathy. Lawyers and crisis communicators often meet their clients when they are at their most vulnerable. We must recognize that and take the time to listen and acknowledge their fears and anxieties. Remember that their skies are falling, and our job is to remind our clients why they hired us.
• Management. Crisis teams need deep benches of talent. It’s neither practical nor sustainable to rely on one or two individuals. But there need to be clearly defined roles. The team leader needs to know how and when to delegate responsibility. It also helps to put a plan on paper. Seeing challenges—and the related solutions—spelled out will help your clients stay organized and avoid being overwhelmed. A collaborative project management tool can also help ensure everyone is on the same page and allow different stakeholders to weigh in.
• Assertiveness. There is a time to let the client feel like they’re making decisions and a time to be decisive for them. More often than not, clients don’t want two or three options; they want you to tell them assertively what their best course of action is and how to get it done. Obviously read the room here and have the emotional intelligence to know which kinds of personalities need what from you.
• Perspective. Often, the core of crisis communications counseling is to de-escalate a story for media and other audiences. That goes for communicating with the executive team as well. While it’s important to always acknowledge the seriousness of a situation, it’s also crucial not to exaggerate it. Because they’re often tied so emotionally to their jobs, clients can feel personally responsible for the organization’s problems and overreact. It is the job of the lawyer and crisis manager to put into perspective the problem at hand and, if appropriate, counsel against action as your recommended action.
• Collaboration. Crisis teams are like jazz bands—they need specialists who can play well with others and understand the value of each member. This means crisis communications professionals and lawyers understand what each is trying to accomplish. It also means understanding the client’s history and the voice in which it communicates.
Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside some of the best practitioners of law and crisis management in the world. And while we almost always succeeded in helping our clients put their crises to bed, at times, in the rush to find a technical solution, we may have missed the mark when it came to appreciating the human element of crisis management.
Learning from these missed opportunities and teaching the next generation of lawyers and crisis managers the role of empathy and compassion in our work will benefit our profession and those who call upon us for help for years to come.
Zach Olsen is the president of Infinite Global, an international strategic communications firm. For nearly two decades, Olsen has helped organizations respond to crises and develop strategic communications campaigns that influence stakeholders; expand market visibility; and protect reputations, brands and bottom lines.
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