New Discussion: Crisis Communications – Lessons Learned in Texas!

Crisis Communications 01

Almost every public relations professional has, or will, manage a client’s communications in a crisis situation. We all know the drills. But, how many of us have been on the other side, crisis management for the plaintiff’s side; working for the organization that wanted the publicity to continue.

A few years ago (pre-Twitter and a few other resources we now use), I was given that opportunity. During the course of this project, many lessons were learned. This case study addresses nine of the many lessons. As you read this report your reaction may be, “I already knew that!” or “That’s PR 101.” However, you may find one lesson that is not so obvious when viewed from the plaintiff’s perspective.

Lesson One – With crisis there is a villain and a heroine or hero. The heroine was a high school graduate from a small southern town. To earn a decent living, her parents held jobs that admittedly were not without some risk. Then, one afternoon there was a preventable accident of catastrophic proportions. Both of the girl’s parents were killed instantly. She unwontedly became the perfect heroine.

The defendant was the perfect villain. It was (and is) an international corporation. The company had made cuts in maintenance expenditures and workers worked long shifts. The orders to cut costs came from the highest levels of the company. It was the perfect heroine vs. villain scenario.

Lesson Two – For a plaintiffs’ trial law firm, it’s not just the money, it’s the publicity. Every plaintiff trial attorney aggressively seeks justice and restitution for his or her clients, as well as publicity. The goal was not to influence the jury pool, but rather promote his or her firm and gain new clients – at the expense of defendants.

The plaintiff trial law firm’s director of marketing hired a team of three public relations/ marketing experts. The marketing team included a Web site developer and a videographer. The team was literally on call 24/7.

Lesson Three – Working with the media – divide and be very helpful. The pre-trial hearings and discovery were already garnering local, national and international attention before the team was assembled. To manage the media, it was decided that two of the publicists would handle the national and international press. The third managed the trade and local media.

Each reporter was given a primary contact, along with the complete contact information of the other two team members. And, it was reciprocal. We asked for and received the complete contact information of all reporters covering the proceedings. As a team, we were able to alert reporters immediately of any breaking news or press conferences.

In addition, we held tri-weekly, team conference calls to discuss discovery, case information and strategy and tactics. The two, primary tactics were to release information about the case when approved by the court, and to “counter-punch” information and statements released by the defendant. This served us very well (see Lesson Six).

Lesson Four – You might need a scorecard. As all of us know, media outlets are making major changes and cuts to staff. In the last two years, many favorite reporters have been laid off or are assigned two or more disjointed beats. During this project, many outlets had reporters, from different beats, covering the hearings and breaking stories. In fact, due to a lack of staff, one publication sent its technology reporter. As names changed and shifted, we constantly updated or added to our media list. If we sent out an alert or press release, we made sure that reporters, editors, assignment editors, etc. from the same outlet received one single email. This ensured that each team knew who was receiving our announcements, and that their outlet would make a “best efforts” to cover the news item.

Lesson Five – Be fast and accurate. The team established a system to write press conference alerts, distribute the announcements and contact key reporters via email, cell or text message. Using templates, MS Word mail merge and Excel spreadsheets (I know it sounds barbaric and may affect sensibilities, but it worked), we were able to begin press conference calls within two hours of the decision (our record was 45 minutes). With a standing conference line, it literally became an exercise of punching buttons.

The key was that we all knew our assigned tasks. One team member would draft the announcement, while the other two began calling reporters. Once the draft was completed, reviewed, proofed and fact-checked, we simply started punching buttons and sent out the announcement to over 200 reporters. In addition, we digitally recorded the press conference calls and made them available on a Web site to reporters who either couldn’t listen to the audio or didn’t receive notification in time for the call.

Lesson Six – If you have something important to say, don’t just put out a press release, hold a press conference call. A classic mistake was the surprise announcement that one of the key executives had resigned. We were monitoring all news on a real time basis. The announcement came out during one of our tri-weekly team calls. The company chose to let the release stand by itself.
We immediately called a press conference call. The call, beginning within 90 minutes of our team seeing the announcement, allowed the plaintiff’s lead attorney to freely voice his opinion on the resignation, without contradiction.

Lesson Seven – If a community forms, give them a place to meet. The Webmaster created two primary Web site templates, which allowed us to launch sites within 24 to 48 hours. It was literally type, cut and paste, insert videos and invite the world.

The two primary Web sites provided information on the trials (both the heroine’s and subsequent injury cases). The sites included trial documents, video depositions and videos shot by the team videographer, along with court-released documents and transcribed depositions. In addition, chat rooms were set up along with online information request forms. All new information was placed on the site. Emails were sent to reporters announcing the posting of new information and documents.

In the months that followed, the first of a series of injury trials began. Working with the court reporter and cable network covering the trial, we added delayed court video highlights, which were synched to court transcripts, on the Web site. Of course, we selected the highlights. Our goal was to present our viewpoint and to drive people to both Web sites. We were successful.

Lesson Eight – Know and respect your opponent. The lead attorney grew up in a blue collar environment, put himself though college and completed his undergraduate work in less than four years and then earned his law degree. The heroine said she lost everything that mattered in her life.
The defense hired private investigators to follow the plaintiff and the attorneys working the case, hoping to gain information that would discredit all parties. With flashlights shining into private homes and every move being shadowed, the heroine and legal team became angrier and more determined. This heightened determination resulted in the company’s legal counsel accepting all of the heroines terms to settle the day the case was to go to trial.

Lesson Nine – Be careful what you write and distribute. A standard tactic for a major trial is to bury the opposition in documents. The defense provided million pages of correspondence, memos, emails, etc. Unfortunately for the defense, the plaintiff’s law firm had the manpower to review, catalog and store on a server every document provided.

Hidden (or possibly hoped to be hidden) in this pile was a document addressing a risk assessment outlining potential damages from the loss of life, when compared to the costs of preventing such a tragedy. Also, there was a memo that included a reference to the division’s refusal to put a value on a worker’s life. In the cost analysis section, it was calculated that there was minimal risk and the least costly preventative measures would be used.

In a memo, the parent corporation complained about the division’s unwillingness to comply with corporate policies. This document was devastating to the defense. The lesson is that even if your job depends on providing such information, remember, once written, it becomes a historic document subject to discovery.

In closing – We have all been taught, when in a crisis situation, to get out in front of the story – be proactive, not reactive. In this situation, the opposition was reactive when they should have been proactive and proactive when they should have remained quiet. We had the perfect poster child, which the corporation tried and failed to discredit. Those efforts worked to our favor, as we continued to elevate her profile, as well as that of the law firm.

In a high profile situation, and in this “24/7 news cycle” world, reporters welcomed proactive updates on breaking news. Because of our efforts and the “bunker mentality” of the opposition, a perspective favorable to plaintiff appeared in print and electronic press. Reporters quickly took our phone calls, responded to emails and thanked us for our efforts.

By subpoenas (including this author), the company leveled accusations at the media team for attempting to poison the jury pool, through our active and reactive outreach programs. In reality, the opposition had unsuccessfully tried to do such outreach themselves through community mailings, touting what they had done and planned to do for the community. Those mailings were viewed as threats to the community and received with scorn and admonishment from the court. Our outreach program, which gave them a place to meet online and view trial documents, was accepted and welcomed by the community.

Spencer Maus

About Nate Marks

We live and work in a world of visual images.
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