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Law firm leaders have a lot to think about: keeping clients happy, turning a profit and marketing the firm, to name just a few. They certainly don’t want to worry about a shake-up within their own organization. But while many lawyers already know how to speak to a reporter about a routine client case that has gone to trial, most don’t know how to act as spokesperson and handle a barrage of media inquiries when their own law firm is in trouble. Perhaps you’re involved in a merger, a senior partner has left abruptly, a large group of associates just decided to abandon ship, a major client is defecting or an attorney is suddenly in hot water from a criminal investigation or sexual harassment charge. In the event of such a crisis, it is essential to have a spokesperson with extensive media training and a well-thought-out communication plan in place. BASIC TRAINING The key to getting your message heard and interpreted succinctly is: practice, practice, practice. Don’t wait until a big story hits your firm to take a crash course in media training. You will run the risk of making a huge public relations faux pas. Instead, it would be wise for your key spokesperson to participate in a media training session every year. By hiring an outside consultant to conduct a training session, you can fine-tune your media skills and be more prepared for a crisis. Generally, a training session entails some role-playing activities where the spokesperson is asked sample questions and responds to them in front of a video camera. Then the person’s peers and the consultant critique the video for appropriate eye contact, hand gestures, body language, key messages and so on. The obvious benefit of such training is that it boosts confidence and can help you steer any negative questioning into a more positive statement. A PLAN COMES TOGETHER It’s not enough to simply define the firm’s objectives, goals and business plans. Every firm, large or small, should prepare a crisis communication plan for responding to the media and public if disaster strikes. Poor communication during a crisis could result in mixed and muddled messages that are relayed to the media and, worse, the general public. Ultimately, the public’s trust is lost, and the firm’s reputation is tarnished. There are three critical stages in crisis communication: preparation, action, and review — otherwise known as before, during and after. Before the crisis, key partners should take these five steps: � Form a crisis-management team. The team should consist of the firm’s marketing department, managing partners and perhaps a representative from each practice group. � Create a plan. The plan needs to be reviewed and agreed to by all principal players on the management team. The plan should include a list of internal and external people with whom the firm needs to communicate during the crisis (i.e., the firm’s media “friends”). � Designate a spokesperson. Ideally, there should be only one person who will speak on behalf of the firm. Appointing one person ensures credibility, especially if it’s the firm’s decision-maker. Ideally, it should be someone who is articulate, experienced in speaking with journalists and, most important, accessible throughout the crisis. � Prepare information. Make sure that you have talking points for the firm’s main messages, fact sheets, media lists, potential interview questions, and even a draft press release. All of this information should be easily accessible to the firm’s spokesperson. � Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Training for a crisis situation must be done at least once a year. You can either do your own mock interviews or hire a marketing/public relations firm to help with media training. If you’ve prepared by following these five steps, when an actual crisis occurs your firm should be well equipped to respond to any inquiries in a timely, professional manner. While the focus is on the firm’s public image, don’t overlook internal communications. It is vital that the firm communicate with the rest of the staff as early into the crisis as possible. By taking this approach, you help ward off any rumors that might be leaked to the media. Once you have sailed through the interviews, your law firm should plan to debrief. At this final stage, those involved in the crisis-management effort should outline and discuss successes, mistakes and problems they encountered along the way. All of this information should be incorporated into a revised plan, and then another planning phase should kick in. The problem too many law firms face, unfortunately, is lack of preparedness. Be proactive, rather than reactive. A CASE IN POINT Recently, one Washington law firm found itself involved in a crisis when a number of partners left to join a competitor. To complicate matters, a couple of important clients left with them. The other firm spared no time in making the announcement known to the media. Subsequently, the word on the street was that the small firm was foundering and soon would cease to be a player in the industry. Big partners and clients were gone, and its reputation was on the line. But the firm’s marketing committee was determined to limit the damage in the press by sending a message to their peers and the general public that the firm was healthy and would survive. Its message included a reminder that no firm is invulnerable to employee turnover, and that clients come and go as a normal part of business. The marketing people recruited a public relations firm. The senior public relations executive handling the crisis produced a one-page statement and contacted all of the reporters who covered the story. The statement reiterated the firm’s outstanding track record, named two new partners who would be joining the following month and mentioned some new client business. The statement also outlined new employee benefits the firm planned on introducing later in the year. The PR person was careful not to repeat the news about the departed partners and clients in the statement or the interviews. Ultimately, the firm received generally fair-to-favorable press. To sum up, here’s how you should — and should not — handle media communications when a crisis hits your firm: � Respond quickly, professionally and positively. � Don’t dribble out the story, making it necessary for the media to seek other sources. � Be forthright and thorough when answering media questions. � Don’t minimize the crisis by simply issuing a press release. Address the media in person through a press conference or small briefing with key reporters. � Never say “no comment” when responding to questions; rather, admit what you don’t know and promise to get the facts later. � Make sure facts are accurate. � Be consistent in your message. � Use statistics and lists to help emphasize your points. They also have a better chance of being picked up in the story. No one can foresee every possible crisis, but with a good action plan and media training on your side, your firm can at least ensure media coverage that sends the right messages. Roni M. Singleton is a publicist with Jaffe Associates, a Washington, D.C. -based firm specializing in marketing, public relations, strategy, and Web design for law firms. She can be reached at [email protected]

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