By Madelain Roscher, crisis communications expert and CEO of PR Worx
The speed of the digital arena has completely transformed the playing field for businesses and crisis experts, accelerating the frequency, reach and impact of brand crises. But where common stereotypes of crisis management teams have legal representatives and public relations personnel duking it out from opposite ends of the spectrum, the reality is that the most effective crisis management teams operate in synergy.
The reason for this misperception is that in the past, some legal professionals have approached crisis management by advising clients to avoid any future litigation risks by remaining silent, mistakenly believing that if companies say nothing, no harm can be done. By contrast, PR professionals have traditionally pushed for greater communication and transparency about the cause of the problem and what the company is doing to remedy the situation in order to restore trust.
However, successfully navigating today’s environment demands greater collaboration between the two in order to prevent clients from being tried and found guilty in the court of public opinion. Professional legal and PR teams need to work in tandem to protect clients’ reputations while remaining cognisant of litigation concerns, or risk winning the legal battle at the expense of losing the reputational war.
This is especially key given the ubiquity of sensationalist journalism and social media, which have exponentially accelerated the reputational fall-out and financial damage of crises. In fact, as KPMG’s August 2022 CEO Outlook report revealed, global CEOs now cite reputational risk among the top five risks to their organisational growth over the next three years.
In this environment, brands cannot afford to play ostrich while others seize the opportunity to spread damaging conjecture and misinformation unchallenged. After all, “no comment” can be just as damaging as a comment, giving the appearance of a cover-up, a lack of compassion or tacit admission of guilt.
Consider the example of the ongoing crisis at Spar. As background on the matter, the group had enlisted the services of law firm Harris Nupen Molebatsi to investigate complaints of racial discrimination and unfair treatment by retailers.
The HNM report was finalised in July 2021, which cleared the company of discrimination, but also contained serious allegations regarding fictious loans and loss-making stores being sold to franchisees at inflated prices – a report that was subsequently leaked to media last year.
Unfortunately, Spar initially declined to comment on the report, giving the impression of stonewalling and further fuelling public concern and media speculation. Since then, the organisation has refuted several of the findings and noted that it will be seeking a legal opinion – but again, this appears as too little too late to minimise damage to its corporate image.
CEO Brett Botten and chair Graham O’Connor – himself appointed in a breach of the King Codes of Good Practice for corporate governance – have both resigned in the wake of the scandal. But the company’s legal and PR team have a long road to walk together in restoring its public image, which will necessitate vastly improved communications.
Ultimately, through understanding each other’s concerns, legal and PR can find a happy middle ground and develop an appropriate response that minimises any legal risk, while ensuring that clients are represented fairly in the public space. By combining legal professionals’ understanding of the complexities of the law with PR professionals’ understanding of media and experience in communicating with various stakeholders, both can be significantly more effective in managing crises.
This said, it can be easier to achieve synergy by building a relationship and working together with an experienced company like PR Worx to develop a proactive crisis management plan before the unexpected happens. This means that when a crisis hits, brands will already be prepared with pre-approved processes and holding statements, enabling them to react more urgently.
In this way, both legal and PR can achieve their penultimate goal – to ensure the ongoing well-being of their clients and the longevity of their brands.