There is a trade off between legal advice and communications advice in a crisis, says Amanda Pierce

There must be a comical story to be told about the business leaders, the lawyer and crisis communications adviser who meet up in a bar. I can’t think of one off-hand, as when these three meet it is more often than not in a board room or on a conference call in the white-heat of a corporate reputational crisis and there aren’t too many jokes to be told.

Faced with a crisis challenge involving personal illness, injury or even death to customers, employees or members of the public, the business decision maker has to make a great many choices, the outcome of which could determine the prosperity or even survival of the company.

The crisis communications adviser will advise that to express empathy, humility and humanity, the business person should probably find the words to say “sorry.” Conversely when something has gone wrong, and responsibility has yet to be established, the lawyer will almost always advise circumspection. With sound legal justification lawyers will want to avoid any suggestion in statements, made verbally or in print, that the company is accepting or incurring liability. In these circumstances sorry really can be the hardest word.

I believe it really should not be that difficult, if only lawyers and communicators build mutual understanding, trust and respect. Of course, the heat of the crisis is not the time to start doing this. By then it is often already too late. In my experience, time invested by both lawyers and communicators during non-crisis “peace time” to build a relationship and identify common ground will pay dividends when crisis strikes.

Case-studies of business leaders getting it right or wrong in these circumstances are legion but the common lesson from each is that business leaders in the firing-line who opted to say “sorry” were the ones who took control of the story. They diluted criticism and gained time to responsibly manage the business, financial and operational challenges while minding their corporate reputations and avoiding legal pitfalls. Shrewd lawyers and communicators working collaboratively will have advised that saying “sorry” is not the same as “apologising”. It is simply an expression of appropriate human sympathy as is expected.

In times dominated by instant digital communication, where there is rolling 24 hour news coverage, a “no-comment” statement is interpreted as “I’m guilty”. When consumers and organisations have become increasingly litigious, and when questions of liability and responsibility are determined at the speed of light, business leaders are expected to be the media face and voice of their companies and their desk is very firmly where the “buck stops”. Many CEOs, most notably BP’s Tony Hayward, have discovered, at high personal and corporate cost, that “sorry” with humility and sincerity would have been a simpler, better and cheaper option.

Business leaders get best advice when lawyers and crisis communicators work get together, so perhaps it’s time to get to a bar, tell a few jokes and build a few bridges before the serious work starts.

Amanda Pierce, CEO, Burson-Marsteller UK