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