The battle between legal and PR doesn’t always have to play out as "Godzilla vs. Bambi." Savvy PR pros gain "relationship altitude" to even things out.

Stay in this business long enough and sooner or later you’ll find yourself at loggerheads with a lawyer.

Bob McEwen
By Robert McEwen
There always has been and probably always will be dynamic tension between those who navigate courts of law and we who work in the courts of public opinion.

Clashes between corporate legal counsel and corporate communications usually involve high-stakes crises and play out in the C-suite or boardroom. Unfortunately for us and for the reputations of our clients, it’s almost never a fair fight.

The prototypical corporate attorney by virtue of training, temperament and disposition, is far better equipped to win when push comes to shove. Lawyers see the world through an adversarial prism. They either defend or attack. It’s what they do. It comes naturally to them.

Most PR people, on the other hand, by nature and experience, are inclined to engage, communicate and seek win/win solutions. We tend to be collaborative and avoid conflict. We like things to be pleasant.

Amiability, however, is not an asset in the heat of a crisis when PR is pitted against an unyielding chief counsel who insists the CEO say nothing. All too commonly, the scene plays out as “Godzilla versus Bambi.”

Granted, there do exist low-key attorneys and obstreperous PR people. But I am talking about the archetypes, not the exceptions. Yes, PR practitioners can be competitive. PR agencies duel each other over RFP’s all the time. But there is a difference between being competitive and being combative. In my experience, the latter trait more often characterizes attorneys, and it has served them well if not always the reputations of their clients.

In a sense the relationship can be likened to that between a U.S. Secretary of State (PR) and a U.S. Secretary of Defense (Legal). The first wants to smooth things over, and the second wants to prevail. Think back to the Bush Administration.

Donald Rumsfeld ran roughshod over poor Colin Powell who by the time he left office – in the aftermath of the Gulf War and despite his extensive military experience - admitted he had little or no influence on foreign policy.

So what is a nice PR person to do?

All of what follows is easier said than done, but it must be done if the PR function is to command respect commensurate with its responsibility.

First, gain “relationship altitude.” Try to ensure that communications has as much access to the C-suite as Legal. The CEO must see his chief PR person as often as he sees his General Counsel. That usually requires that PR reports directly to the CEO instead of an administrative officer, Marketing, HR or, God forbid, Legal.

It can be done. One of the first men in our profession ever to earn an SVP-corporate communications title at a Fortune 100 company met with his CEO every day at 8 AM and briefed him on anything and everything that had happened during the previous 24 hours that had the potential to impact the company’s reputation.

Second, try in advance to “defang” Legal. Do what a smart PR person does in managing any constituent relationship. Long before any problem surfaces befriend the General Counsel. Take him to lunch. Invite his or her spouse and children into your home. Break bread together. Swap stories. Commiserate. Bond. The next time you are advocating for openness and transparency, the lawyer will be less likely to chop you off at the knees.

Legal still might oppose you, but the rhetoric will be less vitriolic if your kids have played video games together.

Third, speak the language of the C-Suite, i.e., dollars and cents. Don’t allow corporate reputation to remain intangible. When the chief legal counsel raises the specter of 7- or 8-figure settlements if the CEO says so much as a word of apology, fight back with numbers of your own. Try taking this approach with the boss:

“Sir, you may want to consider that since Fortune Magazine began ranking “Most Admired Companies,” falling just one rung in a company’s industry sector translates on average to $100 million less in market capitalization the next year. Reputation has as much value on our balance sheet as real estate or inventory.”

Then there’s the issue of the chief executive’s personal legacy. When the lawyers want to stonewall, remind the CEO that he likely will be remembered for how he responds – or fails to respond – to the crisis at hand. Cite these two examples:

When an explosion killed a factory worker and injured dozens of others at Ford’s River Rouge plant in February 1999, Ford Chairman Bill Ford rushed to the scene. His anguish and compassion for the victims prompted him to tell the New York Times it was “the worst day of my life.” No one sued him for that remark, and his actions on that day remain a textbook example of leadership during a crisis.

Conversely, we have the more recent example of BP’s Tony Hayward whose initial downplaying of the 2010 Gulf oil spill ultimately gave way to foot-in-mouth syndrome. So, again, when the lawyers advise the boss to clam up, ask him, “Sir, would you rather be remembered as a Bill Ford or a Tony Hayward?”
If he has a healthy ego, and most CEOs do, he just might be persuaded to risk the legal consequence in order to appear a statesman and not an ostrich.

* * *

Robert McEwen is president & CEO of Zing USA.

Subscribe to O'Dwyer's