Since the inception of Byfield 15 years ago, a lot has changed within the legal industry. This includes the nature of the crises lawyers and firms face. Conduct and culture for example would have featured on the list of possible crises in 2007 for example, but not to the same level as now, nor as a regulatory as well as reputational risk.
That said, crises are crises, whether they relate to misconduct, fraud, misfortune or something else. The key change has come about in how they are handled rather than the fundamental issues that arise.
It is fair to say that even a mere decade ago, crisis communications was regarded as something to deal with as needed and when an issue arose. The experts would be called in to deal with the situation, and with any luck, a major public backlash would be avoided. While that still happens, firms plan for crises in more detail and are less frequently completely blindsided.
So, what has caused this change in approach over the years?
For one thing, the advent of social media has had a significant impact. No longer are businesses having to contend with a story being picked up only by ‘traditional’ media outlets, they now have to deal with crises playing out in real time on platforms like Twitter. A well-prepared crisis PR strategy will plan for the management of multiple channels of communication and different stakeholders.
In addition to this, the legal sector is experiencing a convergence of different types of crises which has made crisis communications a necessary part of the PR toolkit, rather than an additional service to access when needed. Recent events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement have highlighted how companies, including law firms, need to take a clear position on key issues affecting their own people and wider society.
With increased scrutiny from all factions, from their own employees, the SRA, public and the media, there are more headwinds for law firms to face. Issues like workplace discrimination and sexual assault allegations, historically were dealt with behind closed doors, now they are being talked about far more openly and reported on proactively.
If we take the media as an example, more so than ever before, the national and legal media is interested in what law firms are doing as businesses, their internal decision-making on society’s biggest issues, and importantly what public stance they’re taking, if any. A crisis can arise from being singled out as one of the law firms who have remained silent in an important conversation – many firms have found that saying nothing is a statement in itself.
It is no longer an option to stay silent and hope the problem will blow over.
Against the background of a raging talent war, sustainability and a green-first approach and the economic downturn, if firms don’t take a clear stance and set out their position when a crisis arises then their reputation is compromised at best, and ruined at worst.
However, the work doesn’t come at the moment of impact. A great crisis PR strategy involves horizon scanning and the preparation of messaging well in advance. This is something that hasn’t changed.