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It can be a general counsel’s worst nightmare — negative publicity for the company and almost certain costly litigation in the future. Something goes wrong. There’s a product recall of 6 million tires. An airplane crashes. A train derails. There’s an oil spill causing environmental problems. There’s an explosion. Inside the company, employees scramble to handle the crisis and try to figure out what went wrong while outside the public and media stand knocking on the door wanting information and answers. As a general counsel, what do you do? It won’t help your company to start pointing fingers at another company, says Paul Hoferer, general counsel of Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co. in Fort Worth. “I’ve watched this unfold. I don’t know if it’s to the benefit of any corporation to point a finger at any other corporation … . To blame others is to invite additional confrontations down the road.” So “the first thing you do is you get with the CEO/president and meet with your public relations people and make sure any information given to the public is factually correct,” Hoferer says. Get everyone who knows anything together. One department may know something another department doesn’t, he says. Therefore, the general counsel needs to talk to employees in all departments. Any information that’s released needs to go through the corporation relations department. Whereas a general counsel has expertise in making sure what is said is legally sound and protecting the company from future litigation related to the incident, the public affairs office’s expertise is in presenting the message in the best possible way. “It’s not just the message, it’s the way it’s presented,” Hoferer says. It is important to provide information as soon as possible, but instead of giving the public and media “a knee-jerk ‘here’s what happened,’ ” it’s best to take as much time as needed to make sure the information that’s released is accurate and up-to-date, he says. If you’re not sure it’s accurate, it’s best to say, “ We’re looking into it, and we’ll get back to you.” That’s “the drill we go through,” Hoferer says. As much as some general counsel would rather not talk to the media, it has to be done, says Craig Glidden, vice president, general counsel and secretary of Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. in Houston. “Rule No. 1 is to not respond with a ‘no comment.’ Remaining mute is not an option. If you remain mute, then others will speak for you. You cannot sit by and let [what others have to say] be the only comments on the topic.” And, Glidden adds, you have to respond “before a news window closes.” Reporters have deadlines. If you don’t respond to their questions by those deadlines, your comments won’t be included. That could be damaging. Glidden speaks from experience. “I’ve been involved in a corporate challenge,” he says, preferring not to mention it by name. There’s no such thing as a corporate crisis; you have to see incidents as corporate challenges, he says. “Essentially, what a GC is in a position to do is assist the company in determining the appropriate course of action to appropriately defend the company’s reputation,” Glidden says. Agreeing with Hoferer, Glidden says that part of defending your company’s reputation is “to make sure that the information from all sides is factually correct.” Don’t just focus on what you’re saying though, he says. Focus on what the media’s saying and what the public’s saying. A GC has to “be cognizant of all the contingencies out there,” he says. BE HONEST The GC needs to communicate not just with the outside world, but also with those on the inside — employees and customers. Make sure employees know the facts by distributing newsletters, hosting town meetings and/or visiting remote sites, if your company is located in more than one office or city. “They are an important part of the larger public,” Glidden says. “They are usually more affected by what they read and see than the general public.” Whenever there’s a “corporate challenge,” he says, GCs play an important role because they’re “at the intersection of the legal and business sections” of the business. “You worry about the moment, getting through the immediate crisis, but at the same time you have to be always aware of what the future may hold,” Glidden says. When it’s time to talk, a GC doesn’t have to be the spokesperson, but she does have to make sure the spokesperson knows what is OK and not OK to say, Glidden says. What’s the most important thing to say? The truth, he says. From the beginning, “you have to select your words carefully … Commit to tell the truth and be forthright with the community and constituents.” Echoing Hoferer’s comments, Glidden says the public affairs office will know what approach to take when releasing information. “GCs have to deal with those people who deal with the media in an expeditious manner,” he says. A GC and the public affairs officer will quickly get to know each other really well after an incident, says Tom Cirigliano, Exxon/Mobil spokesman. In 1989, he was working in Alaska for the Houston-based company when there was a major oil spill from the Exxon Valdez. “We took quite a hit for the public affairs 10 years ago,” Cirigliano says. “What we have in place, especially since Valdez, is an emergency response team.” A team is made up of someone who’s on-site where the incident occurred, a public affairs specialist, and the GC who would typically be responsible for the area of the business involved. Agreeing with Hoferer and Glidden, Cirigliano says it’s crucial that information released is accurate from the start. Working side by side, GCs and public affairs specialists gather, process, verify and release information. Lawyers look at press releases written by public affairs specialists and become editors of sorts. Notes Cirigliano, “The lawyers are often very good at keeping us on track on ‘How accurate is this?’ to make us stay to the facts. They ask the right questions.” Related Chart: Greatest Hits In Recall History

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