It’s high time communications professionals stood up to the lawyers

By Robert Taylor

Be warned. Following legal advice can seriously damage your reputation. When Kensington and Chelsea Council leader Nick Paget-Brown resigned he cited as a key mistake his decision to follow legal advice (not to admit the media and public to a meeting to discuss the Grenfell tragedy) rather than simply doing the right thing – morally.

Where were his PR people? Why didn’t they insist he considered their advice too? Why does legal advice always trump everything else?

Not for the first time, legal advice to the exclusion of all else has led to disaster. Think of Thomas Cook. Following the tragedy in Corfu in 2006, when two young children were accidentally gassed to death on holiday, it took the company a staggering nine years to say the simple, decent word ‘sorry’, or even to express sympathy. Why? You guessed it. Their lawyers told them that by saying sorry they’d be taking legal responsibility for the deaths.

Never mind the parents’ anguish. Sod them. Let’s just make sure we’re legally watertight – that’s all that matters.

(And by the way, Thomas Cook’s reputation took one hell of a hit as a result.)

Actually, I don’t blame the lawyers in either case. Lawyers are paid to give legal advice. Often, it seems, they use tunnel vision, without giving the slightest consideration to the bigger picture.

But communications professionals? We do see the bigger picture. That’s why we’re there. So where were the comms people last week when that meeting was abandoned because ordinary people, God forbid, had got in? Why didn’t the comms people say, “Look, this is going to be yet another catastrophe, adding further anguish to the families of the victims”? And why didn’t they advise against Mr Paget-Brown’s use of the term “perceived failings” in his resignation statement, a legalism designed to make him seem a victim?

As it happens, I know why. Ever since my first job in comms way back in the early 1990s, it has been accepted wisdom that lawyers always have the final say. I’ve seen it happen so many times, in organisations big and small. Lawyers don’t just give their say, they get the final say – on letters, press releases, speeches, messages – you name it. I’ve even seen an in-house lawyer completely re-write a media statement, ridding it of any semblance of personality or news appeal. Nobody batted an eye-lid. Madness.

So, two things need to happen. First, law firms can steal a huge march on their rivals by offering clients a broader service, including wider communications advice from top PR professionals. I understand some are already doing this, and it can’t happen quickly enough.

Secondly, the PR industry needs to say enough is enough, and challenge the rule that legal advice always trumps everything else. If we don’t do so vociferously and forcibly, we will not just be letting ourselves down, but our clients too.

Meanwhile, the next organisation or executive brought down by an insistence on listening only to the lawyers deserves no sympathy from anyone.

Robert Taylor is a media trainer whose clients include the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the British Council. He has contributed articles to the International Herald Tribune and American Spectator.

Picture Credit Brandon Butterworth/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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5 comments on “It’s high time communications professionals stood up to the lawyers
  1. Steven Fifer says:

    The arguments in this article are well-intentioned but I am not sure I agree.

    The final say as to whether the media and public should have been present at the meeting to discuss the Grenfell tragedy is for the senior executive to make. The buck stops with them.

    It is not for one profession to trump the other and good leadership would have made their decision based on considered opinions provided by their professional colleagues, whether they are from the PR/comms team or the legal team.

    And how does the author know that PR didnt provide advice and if they did, that their opinions were not considered? Maybe I missed something in the press but sweeping statements like this are not helpful and if it was true, back it up.

    I would also suggest that many people from the legal profession might feel aggrieved if you said to them they use ‘tunnel vision’ and do not consider the ‘bigger picture’ when providing advice to their clients. Solicitors are professionals too and will want to serve their clients they best they can, even if it means providing advice their clients may not want to hear.

    The real outcry here should be Mr Paget-Brown blaming someone else for the decisions he took. As a leader of a major London council, he was paid handsomely to make tough and significant decisions. Both in the good times and unfortunately the bad.

  2. Paul Mylrea says:

    All so true. As a senior PR person and friend at a major financial institution (I won’t name) once said to me, “Lawyers lose people their jobs, PR professionals help them keep their job.” I have been in too many institutions (again I won’t say which) where the legal advice to avoid liability trumped advice from the communications professionals to say sorry. And the outcome was predictably dire. One of the reasons this happens is that not enough PR professionals are at the top table.The other is that I firmly believe PR people should not talk about the confidential discussions that take place. So it’s hard to prove that we were not listened to – and indeed, appears self-serving if we were to say “I told you so”.

  3. Don’t blame stupid local authority lawyers Wherever in the world you operate …. there is a very simple approach a competant and professional public relations practitioner should be the one to seek legal advice and the approach is “this is what I want/we need to achieve. so how can we do it”. It is a partnership if the lawyer isn’t bright enough to respond then the CEO needs to step in and get one who does..understand that is.

    Best lawyer I ever worked with was the a Canadian General counsel for a major US tobacco firm … when he saw stuff was going wrong he asked the “what do you think we need to achieve question and then provide us with the way we could achieve our objective and protect the legal liabilities.”

    Worst lawyers … a major UK firm who set up a ‘public affairs arm’ and advised a healthcare client who was using the firm in a battle with HMRC to ‘take down your website and refuse to respond to telephone enquiries.’
    Let’s start being adults we should operate as professional partners with other professions. Don’t rant Robert this local authority is not fit for purpose.

  4. As a practising solicitor turned communications consultant, now specialising in reputation management, the points argued in this article resonate. Throughout my long career in the law and later providing counsel to corporate clients of all kinds and individuals I have always advised an early apology does not constitute an automatic acknowledgement of liability but rather demonstrates empathy and allows constructive dialogue rather than polarised positions. Watch out for the Apology Clause campaign to address this precise issue.

    Sue Stapely FCIPR
    Sue Stapely Consulting

  5. Kate Betts says:

    So true Robert. I once spent an hour and a half arguing with a lawyer over the use of the word ‘sorry’ in relation to a major national disaster (I won’t say which for fear of identifying our client). Fortunately our client took our advice and used the word. I dread to think how they would have come out of it if they hadn’t.
    I often quote the Compensation Act 2006 which specifically says: An apology or offer of redress is not of itself an admission of liability (I paraphrase) and I wonder why lawyers don’t see that.
    As you say, the bigger picture, public reputation, is so important. And as PR professionals we must be prepared to argue that with the lawyers.
    (Kate is also a CIPR trainer)

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