Friday, May 7, 2010

When "Legalese" and PR clash

I've held off writing or commenting about the giant oil spill just off the Louisiana coast, until today.  In my experience, the initial incident, whatever it may be, is really just a percursor, an opening act, if you will, to the rest of the show. 

What can small businesss and non-profits learn from the BP disaster?

Generally, I like to take a wait and see approach before coming to any concslusions.  But I feel that the time has come to, at the very least, make some observations about how BP is handling this current PR nightmare. 

I've covered some basic crisis communications practices in this blog in the past.  In reality, crisis communications is very simple.  To review, there are four things you have to do when confronted by a crisis, any crisis. 

1. Acknowledge
2.  Admit
3.  Apologize
4.  Fix

If you do this, you can move past almost any crisis you'll come up against.  And let's face it, as small business owners and non-profits, you probably face a thousand mini-crisises every day.  Whether its an irate customer or a missed delivery or a faulty product, you will have to deal with a crisis at some point.  Most of the time, these will be smaller issues that you can quickly and easily move past, but even in these cases, the above strategy will help.  And if you ever find yourself in the middle of a growing scandal, or blasted by a newspaper article or faced with a tragic situation (i.e. a shooting in your establishment) you'll be best served by remembering those four points.

I reiterate this because, A) it's so important to small businesses and non-profits to be prepared to handle any crisis, large or small, and B) even the smallest situation can balloon into a crisis of monumental proportions if not handled correctly at the very beginning.

Now, it's highly unlikely that any of us will have to deal with the kind of nightmare that BP is dealing with in Louisiana.  And we're thankful for that.  For the most part, I think BP is doing an "okay" job in managing the PR aspect of this.  BP has come out and said most of the right things about helping and aid and clean up.  But there is one aspect of their handling of this which is troubling, and it's an aspect of major crisis PR that isn't unique to BP, or oil companies or large corporations.  It's a uniquely modern-day issue and one that is generally the biggest stumbling block when dealing with a crisis:  I call it "Legalese".

This excerpt from an editorial in the Capitol Hill Blue newspaper sums up the "Legalese" problem nicely (click on the link to see the entire story)
The name of a disaster can be critical, both as a historic matter and the more immediate matters of image, public relations and legal liability. BP has said it will honor “legitimate” claims from people and businesses seeking compensation from disruption caused by the spill. But since there are likely to be many disputed claims (“This is America — come on,” BP chief executive Tony Hayward told the Times of London on Wednesday), having your company’s name inextricably linked to a disaster can’t help when a jury begins assigning damages.
The editorial was in response to the fact that President Obama has started calling the disaster "The BP Oil Spill."  He has now attached a name to this, and that name has, as the editorial states, leaves no doubt about who is to blame for this "epic mess".

Clearly, BP isn't happy about this label.  Because in instances like this, there's much more at stake than simple company image, consumer confidence and brand loyalty.  There's money, lots and lots and LOTS of money, mostly in the form of the numerous lawsuits that are sure to follow.  This is where the legalese starts to take over, and as much as I understand the thought process, it's still a mistake.  The bold section of the quote says everything you need to know about BP's mindset.  While I understand Mr. Hayward's sentiment, I'm not sure I'd be very happy that he said it if I were handling PR for this crisis.  It belittles the many quality claims that will be filed and it comes across as a bit of a slam on Americans.  This isn't exactly how to win friends and influence people when mired in the middle of a disaster.

I've done work for Shell Oil in my career and I have a sense of how large oil companies think.  Believe it or not, it's not always about the bottom line.  I was impressed with Shell and their willingness to be open about their company.  They were eager to reach out to all kinds of groups and were happy to spend money when it was necessary.  I never saw any kind of underhanded activity or processes while I worked with them. 

But Shell was also very careful about the words they used, for legal reasons.  And this kind of wordplay sometimes sent the wrong message to the public.  Often it looked as if they were talking around an issue instead of simply coming forward and saying what they meant.  Regardless of what the words themselves said, people couldn't look past the legalese.

Another example:

I was part of a team handling a major crisis for Kroegers/King Soopers a few years ago.  We were faced with a potentially devastating crisis that could have had ramifications on thousands of people across Colorado.  As we were briefed on the story, I knew as a former journalist, this could be a blockbuster story for any journalist wanting to dig up some dirt and raise legitimate concerns about the security and safety of their local pharmacies. 

Fortunately, we were in front of the story.  The DEA was in the middle of their investigation and we had some time to prepare before the government released their report and levied fines.  As we worked on implementing our strategy, crafting our press releases and preparing to hold our own press conference, Kroegers, the parent company for Colorado's King Soopers and City Market, sent a team out to give us a hand.

This was their lead crisis management team.  They had experience and knowledge.  But they were lawyers, all of them.  It turns out their main job was to make sure that our work fit into their legal constructs. 

It was a frustrating experience.  I would write a press release and send it off to Cincinnati or hand it off to the lead team and it would come back completely rewritten, full of legal terms and phrases of avoidance.  It took time, which we had, thankfully, but we were finally able to convince the lead team that their legalese would cause more problems and that our wording was not only better, but safer.

Don't Raise The Flag:

Here's why the legalese can cause more problems than it helps.  In short, it raises suspicions.  There are two reasons why this happens:

1.  The general public is wary of anyone who speaks in legalese.  It makes you look as if you're trying to hide something by using legal terms and phrases.  You want the public to embrace you and trust you.  But you're hiding behind legalese, people are naturally going to question your sincerity and it will be harder for them to forgive you and trust you again.

2.  Journalists are muckrakers.  As a former journalist, I say this with all honesty and admiration.  Journalists are supposed to dig and look for the truth and expose lies and fraud.  The minute they see a press release filled with legal jargon, it immediately sends up red flags.  Something's not right, they'll say to themslves and suddenly you have a journalist doing exactly the opposite of what you want them to do; digging further into the story.  A good press conference answers all the questions, and explains the situation without raising further suspicion.  If done right, a press conference and release will leave journalists feeling that there is nothing left to the story.  They'll move on to something else and you'll soon be forgotten.

If the crisis is bad enough, you'll likely have to pay out something to lawyers and maybe even lawsuits.  But would you rather spend some money up front and be honest and open so you can begin to rebuild your image and community trust?  Or would it be better to try and CYA by using legal terms, raising the red flags of journalists and then be hounded by reporters for months or years.  You MIGHT save a few bucks in the short term by taking the second option, but in the long run, your image will take a beating, you'll likely be the focus of numerous news stories all putting you in a bad light, and you'll lose customers. 

Short vs. Long Term:

Obviously, BP is willing to take a hit by using legalese right now in their PR efforts.  This makes sense because, as an oil and gas company, they're already used to being portrayed as a bad guy.  They know they're going to have to pay a lot of money to clean this mess up, the question is, how much. 

Unfortunately, small businesses and non-profits don't have the deep pockets that a BP has.  You rely on the public to keep you afloat.  One of the biggest issues when handling a crisis is getting a company to admit that they made a mistake.  Too often they feel as if they admit something, they open themselves up to a lawsuit.  And maybe you will, depending on the situation. 

But rebounding from a crisis is largely a game of image.  A crisis can tarnish your public image.  However by handling the situation correctly you can often come out of a crisis looking better then before.  If you made a mistake that had financial ramifications, then the public will admire you for standing up and taking the hit.  They'll view you as a company that lives up to its committments.  If you start to get overwhelmed by frivolous lawsuits, the public will be on your side since you have already come forward and righted the wrongs.  The fact is, as a small business or non-profit, you're less likely to be hit with frivolous lawsuits.  Those are generally reserved for large companies with deeper pockets. 

If you do the right thing, even if it means taking a short term financial hit, you'll come out stronger and with a better public image than you had before the crisis.  Whatever you do, certainly watch how BP handles this crisis, but also understand that their situation and their long term goals are vastly different than yours.  Don't try to copy what they do and don't use legalese when confronted by a crisis.  It's a trap that will only make the situation worse.


  1. Exxon never rallied from the spill, BP wont rally from this! This Oil spill is worse than Exxon because it is shutting down jobs in the middle of a difficult economy. BP is not violating your glorious PR rules, they just cant win with them. The only thing that could help BP right now is a collaps in the price of fuel lighten the load of animosity towards them. I am sure they are already planning a name change in the coming years because of the oil spill on the long tail. Short tail they need to mitigate some of the legal issues since they are not actually at fault in this.

    It's like a General Contractor that hires an electrician that does a crappy job... when the house burns down the GC takes a lot of the heat but the responsibility is shared. This is very similar to that. Time to think like a marketer and not a PR rep, loose the short game to win the long one. At this point Q scores don't count, the brand is dead.

  2. Mike,

    Thank you for your comments. I agree that BP is in some serious trouble here, and they may likely try and undergo a brand change. They've already tried to distance themselves from their former brand, British Petroleum by going strictly with the BP moniker.

    I don't believe BP is violating any of the "rules of PR," I simply stated that it is a harder road to travel when legalese gets in the way of honest communication. I believe the rules of PR are actually geared for the long term. We may disagree about how that long term scenario plays out, but I still believe the four rules of crisis communications is a solid and proven crisis strategy.

    I actually think BP is doing what they can and they're doing an okay job in handling this crisis from a communications standpoint. And you're correct in pointing out that a more drastic future change is probably coming. What I was trying to do was point out to small businesses and non-profits some of the flaws in the BP strategy. Too often small businesses see what a large corporation does and tries to emulate it, but that is usually a mistake.

    In your example of the general contractor, I honestly believe the GC would be better served to take the responsibility, admit the mistake was made, apologize, and then move on to focus on how changes will be made to avoid a similar situation in the future. Hopefully the electrician also steps up to the plate, but if not, pointing fingers and trying to lessen the burden by roping someone else into the blame game is not going to help the GC rebuild his image or brand. The public will forgive as long as you don't try to hide behind lawyers. If you admit your mistake, be sincere in your apology and then focus on fixing the problem, a crisis doesn't have to be a death knell for a small business. Again, thank you for your comment. I don't believe we're on opposite sides of the fence here.

    Take care,
    Chris Gallegos