Reputation management is critical for companies, especially in today’s socially-connected world. And during a crisis, any and all comments have the potential to sway public opinion.

At the second annual Corporate Counsel Leadership Forum in New York this week, the opening session –  “Mission Critical: The Role of the General Counsel in Managing Corporate Relations and Public Opinion” –  focused on the role general counsel may provide in a time of crisis by managing multiple aspects of the business, advising the board, senior management and other outside stakeholders.

The panel, moderated by Juda Engelmayer, senior vice president, 5W, included, Michael Brizel, executive vice president and general counsel, FreshDirect; Jonathan Brenner, managing director and associate general counsel, Bank of America; Justin Connor, director of Chief Legal Officer Services, Association of Corporate Counsel; and Michael D. Fricklas, executive vice president, general counsel and secretary, Viacom, Inc.

The discussion quickly jumped to the role social media plays in a crisis and how it can alter or magnify a situation. General counsel, as legal representatives for the company, are uniquely challenged to sort through the noise and evaluate whether it is an actual crisis. The legal team is often able to provide a more holistic view of an organization than other areas of the business. The panelists also noted that a changing regulatory environment over the last few years has led more organizations to adopt a crisis management protocol, as regulatory issues often influence public and investor perception.

As the panel discussed, general counsel are ideally-suited to make sure that a crisis management process exists in an organization. After all, the legal function is well-positioned to evaluate fact versus fiction and help navigate organizational challenges and offer a more reasoned, overall plan to effectively manage these scenarios. A well-defined process, whether high-level or detailed, can align and enable key stakeholders to understand the position of the company and the appropriate steps that will be taken.

A question from the panel that was of particular interest to the audience was, “As legal practitioners representing the business, are [general counsel] able to even influence the story that is being told?”

The group noted that if organizations are willing to engage with media, investors or other key stakeholders, those audiences will listen. The media may not present everything you would like or in the manner you prefer, but building relationships with media over time can open the door to opportunities when you need to be heard. With the help of a corporate communications team or consultants, general counsel can be an important source for the media in the heat of a crisis.

With that, there are times when legal counsel must encourage patience and provide counsel against the immediate urge to address a situation. That said, if you choose to say nothing, you risk opening the door for traditional and social media to interpret the story without all the necessary information. The panelists agreed that, at a minimum, organizations should respond to a crisis with a blanket statement, such as, “We are aware of the situation; we are working to gather all the facts and will provide a response soon.” This general response avoids offers a chance for the organization to “get its footing,” while at the same time showing the public and media that you are working to resolve the issue.

In regards to internal audiences, it is critical to make management and the board aware of any situation immediately, even if it is just a notification to inform them you will provide more information in the next 24 hours. It’s also important for organizations in highly regulated industries such as finance or pharmaceuticals to take the opportunity to inform regulators of any issues as well.

While an organization may lack the resources to prepare for an in-depth, expansive crisis preparedness plan, the key is to think about a starting point for response before an issue arises. And let it not be forgotten: once you have navigated a crisis, evaluate what went right, what went wrong and update your plan from there – use the event as a learning experience to be better prepared for the future.

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