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Posted: May 01, 2012

Guest column: “Do you care to comment?”

Turning a crisis into opportunity

By Terrance D. Carroll and Abigail Kesner

It’s the call you dread. Something unfortunate has happened, and the media has become aware of the situation. A reporter calls you and asks: "Do you care to comment?" If you handle it right, you can defuse the situation. However, if not handled right, your moment of dread can turn into a crisis fraught with legal and public-relations risks.

The most important step should occur long before the reporter first dials your number or sends you an email: Be prepared. Creating a crisis-communications plan and protocol is an essential tool for any business.

Determine who should be a part of the crisis-response team and make sure all staff knows who’s authorized to speak on behalf of your enterprise and who isn’t. The team should also create a protocol for responding to a crisis to ensure that people speaking or acting on behalf of your organization are conveying accurate and consistent information.

The role of the lawyer on the team is to be keenly aware of and guard against the legal risks, but have the media, political and business savvy to help the team craft a message that best addresses the situation at hand in terms of the pertinent legal issues that may be present. In a crisis situation, the lawyer’s role is to navigate the team through the legal minefield with thoughtful problem-solving.

When identifying and preparing for crises, plan strategies to address them. Ask:

• What’s the worst possible outcome?

• What’s the best possible outcome?

• What tools do we need to achieve the best
possible outcome?

• What information do we need?

• Who needs to be informed – and when?

When the media calls, you don’t have to comment on the spot. Pause, gather your team, collect all the facts, and make sure your response is truthful and appropriate for the situation.

Once you collect all the facts, respond promptly. That may mean providing a statement to the media, or setting up individual interviews with reporters. Working with communications professionals is also important. While the lawyer will address the legal aspects of statements and information, a communications professional can help a company determine the best method for delivery.

When you anticipate the media’s needs and provide them information in a timely manner, it makes their job easier and creates a positive working relationship with them.

When responding to the media, be forthcoming, particularly with "bad" news. You should deal with a crisis like you pull off a bandage: quickly. Suppressing information that will later come to light will jeopardize your relationship with the professional media and will ultimately be a negative. This is particularly true in today’s technology-driven 24-hour media cycle where not only traditional reporters, but also bloggers and citizen journalists will have access to distribution of information on a large scale.

It is important for the spokesperson to stick only to the information he or she can confirm and messages approved by the crisis team. If at all possible, be careful not to make the classic mistake of using your lawyer as your spokesperson. This immediately says to world that "we have something to hide!" Only under the most exceptional circumstances should you use a lawyer as your primary spokesperson.

Even if there is information you cannot share, never say "no comment." You can be legally and ethically obligated to limit your comments, but at the very least, explain why you are limited in what you can say. You can always share the values that drive your company or client even if you can’t discuss specifics. Gone are the days when you can simply hide behind the mantra "on advice of counsel, no comment." You may succeed in protecting yourself from legal exposure but still lose the war of public opinion.

When apologizing, follow the four-point apology rules:

1. Admit the mistake

2. Express remorse

3. Acknowledge harm

4. Offer a plan to repair the damage

Never say "mistakes were made," because it doesn’t acknowledge responsibility in the crisis.

Finally, always stick to your messages. Address questions the reporters ask, but bridge back to your core messages and the key points you want to get across. Use phrases like: "Keep in mind that…" or "The key point is…" to bridge back to those main points. That will improve the likelihood that what you want to say makes it into the story. 

Terrance D. Carroll is an attorney with the Denver office of Greenberg Traurig LLP, an international, full-service law firm with approximately 1,800 attorneys. Carroll is a former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives.

Abigail Kesner is a senior associate at SE2, a Colorado-based mass communications firm focused on public issues, policy and social marketing. Kesner was the communications director for the Colorado Senate Majority from 2009-2010. Before that, Kesner spent nearly seven years at CNN in New York.

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