The Problems of GCs Thrust Into the Media Spotlight
With the recent spate of government scandalsincluding the revelation that the National Security Administration has been routinely accessing data from major U.S. Internet companiesgeneral counsel are finding themselves increasingly thrust into the public arena. But are the GCs ready for their media close-up?
Top in-house counsel from Verizon, Google, and Facebook are among those who have been called upon to speak publicly about the NSA scandal, defending their companies willingness to accede to government requests.
And it is not just GCs at companies involved in the NSA scandal that find themselves in the public eye these days. More and more often, in-house counsel are responding publicly on behalf of their companies in media stories and other public venues.
But it can be an uncomfortable role for general counsel, since historically they have not been trained in dealing with the media and other public response. Indeed, my experience has been that much of legal trainingboth in law school and in practiceleaves a typical GC poorly prepared for the nuances of delivering messages through media and other public outlets.
All is not lost, however: by understanding some of the basic problems and taking a few simple steps to solve them, GCs can learn how to communicate as effectively in the court of public opinion as they do in the boardroom or before a judge or regulator.
The Problem: General counsel sometimes have trouble seeing the forest for the trees.
Although often considered the great generalists of the legal world, from the standpoint of public discourse, in-house counsel are usually immersed quite deeply in the intricacies of what they do on a daily basis. They are hip-deep in facts and law, statutes and regulatory requirements, which makes it difficult to communicate in a manner that effectively conveys the story to a public with only the most basic understanding of what is going on. If a reporter calls while youre buried deep in the weeds of that latest brief, for example, wellguess what?youre going to wind up talking about that latest brief.
The Solution: Stop. Decompress. Step away from the law library, put down the Securities and Exchange Commission filings, and think about what the audience for this message really wants to know. Work from your audience backward, rather than from your legal arguments forward.
Write down the three most important points you want to make and commit them to memory (this might be the single most important bit of advice I can offer). Only then call the reporter back.
The Problem: Lawyers are taught to answer each question definitively.
It is axiomatic in the world of media training that while you always respond to a question, you don't necessarily have to answer it definitively. The difficulty, of course, lies in the fact that this flies in the face of how most intelligent people have been taught to answer questions. Attorneys in particular are taught to answer questions definitively, with specificity, highlighting the nuances, anticipating opposing arguments and dispensing with them categorically.
Which is fine in the legal context, a world of 100-page briefs and exhaustive regulatory filings. But if you answer that way in the public arena, you may never get to your messagewhich is the whole reason you are responding in the first place.
The Solution: Address the questions asked, but studiously avoid the urge to answer questions definitivelybeyond all reasonable doubt, as they say in criminal law. This doesnt mean you dodge the question or act evasively; rather, understand that in this context you are not required to put forth the same level of detail as you might in other contexts. Bring the discussion back to the issues that are at the core of your messagei.e. those three points you wrote down earlier.
The Problem: General counsel are often educators rather than communicators.
General counsel spend much of their time explaining the intricacies of legal and regulatory requirements to the company CEO and other non-lawyer audiences within the company. They are trained to educate. At times, this is a great thing to do with media and other public audiences, so that they can come to understand what an issue or case is all about. But notice I said at times. On many, many other occasions, your job is not to educate, but to deliver a messagesuccinctly and in a manner that ensures it sinks in.
Often Ive had conversations with in-house lawyers where theyve shared the details of the great conversation they had with a reporter, and that the reporter really seemed to understand the depth and breadth of the issues surrounding a case. Yet when the story appears in a newspaper or online, the companys message isnt in there.
What happened? The GC set out to educate, rather than deliver a message.
The Solution: Work assiduously to make your message the central theme of your conversation with the reporter. Come back to your three message points again and again and again. Yes, it will seem repetitive, stilted, and maybe even a bit awkward. You might even feel the conversation was awful, that you sounded less like a seasoned, intelligent GC and more like some sort of blow-dried politician.
But trust me, it only feels that way. Do it right and the news story that results will stand testament to the fact that while the conversation may have been awkward, the interview was perfect.
James F. Haggerty, an attorney and communications consultant, is CEO of PRCG/Haggerty LLC and the author of In The Court of Public Opinion: Winning Strategies For Litigation Communications (American Bar Association Publishing, 2009).