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Essential top tips for effective crisis PR

I have been blessed by having spent more than 25 years not only as a crisis PR lawyer, but also as an editorial lawyer. It has been my privilege both to legal out and defend high quality journalism for clients such as ITV, Sky, and the Huffington Post.

For Sky I robustly legalled out a scathing documentary about Scientology in the face of around 25 letters from Carter Ruck (acting for the church) threatening a slew of legal and regulatory actions. I have legalled a series of South Park which included very controversial content. On the light side I have reviewed autobiographies from stars such as Ant and Dec, and Basil Brush (you would not believe what that fox gets up to).

All the invaluable learning gleaned from this work has fed into my work as a crisis PR lawyer, and much of it has made it into my Crisis PR seminar. One of the seminar’s slides has essential “Do’s” for effective crisis PR – the best form of which is to prevent the crisis from occurring at all. Here they are.

1. Remember that all commercial media content must be checked by lawyers
Every word of every national paper is checked by an editorial lawyer, as is every second of programme output from a broadcaster; even if it is live (not work for the faint-hearted as I know from experience).

2. Remember the burden of proof is generally on the media
Broadly speaking, whether the forum is legal or regulatory, it is for the media to justify the making of damaging allegations.

3. Instil a sense of jeopardy in the editorial lawyer
The role of an editorial lawyer is both to assess and minimise risk. They must be convinced both that this story/allegation does not warrant the risk of publication – its truth or falsity not being the determining factor. That is only achievable by persuading the lawyer both that the story is incapable of substantiation, and that if it is published/broadcast substantiation will be required.

4. The mere fact that you engage a media lawyer who knows how to deploy the regulatory and legal protections will have some impact
Only a media lawyer will instil that sense of jeopardy, the mere instruction of whom notifies both the editorial lawyer and media entity they act for that this company or individual is serious about protecting their reputation. Editorial decisions will inevitably be impacted.

5. Deploy the protections of the IPSO/Ofcom Codes and your legal rights to protect your/your client’s reputation/brand
Both the IPSO and Ofcom Code’s require accuracy. Most Fleet St. titles are covered by IPSO, and all broadcasters must abide by the Ofcom Code. As a long-time programme lawyer, I know the Ofcom Code is taken very seriously. Both individuals and companies enjoy rights given by our democracy to protection of their reputation.

6. If you are a large corporation you will always be taken seriously
Most editorial lawyers will take little account in their advice of communications other than from a known media lawyer. When I am doing editorial work, I review a letter in this order. Firstly, does the writer know what they are doing? Secondly, how much money does their client have? So, if you act for a major company you immediately have my attention. Only thirdly do I ascertain what the letter is about.

7. Speed of response is of the essence
Another one of the slides in my seminar is entitled “the Golden Hour”; a phrase I borrowed from my First Aid training. Both the “print” and broadcast elements of the media have both regulatory and legal obligations not only to provide adequate detail about a threatened story, but a reasonable period within which to respond. The sooner you respond with a robust and detailed rebuttal of the story the better chance you have either of knocking out completely, or at least substantially reducing its negative impact.

Written by Jonathan Coad, Coad Law

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