Law: The need for a cool head in a crisis: No such thing as bad publicity? Sharon Wallach meets Sandra Hewett, a public relations consultant who disagrees

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The Independent Online
It is not true that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Just ask Norman Lamont or Hoover, as Sandra Hewett points out in her firm's publicity material launching a crisis management service for lawyers.

Through Focus Hewett, a public relations consultancy for the professional sector, Ms Hewett has advised in situations including the defection of senior partners, redundancies and false allegations. She has also helped solicitors' clients deal with journalists and photographers outside the courtroom.

Useful experience was gained when Ms Hewett helped defuse a potentially damaging incident for a commercial client, when an anonymous letter claiming unethical conduct on its part was sent to all corners of its industry.

The fact that Ms Hewett was brought in at the beginning saved the day, she says. 'One of the directors wanted to fire off a three- page letter to all the company's clients refuting the charges. He may well have been right, but they were serious allegations that couldn't be investigated in two days.'

What they did was take a deep breath and send out a letter saying: 'This is the sort of company we are, these are the standards we follow, we will be investigating these allegations and will report to you on the outcome.'

Three weeks later, this was followed by a lengthy report that disproved all the allegations. The anonymous letter writer was never traced and the press did not pick up the story. As Ms Hewett points out, no one does his best work in anger or in haste.

Lawyers are more sophisticated these days regarding marketing and public relations, but they still need to learn to separate their promotional aspects from areas such as crisis management. 'I would argue that the PR person should be part of the process, rather than the last step,' Ms Hewett says. 'Solicitors are so used to the positive side of publicity and haven't quite grasped that there are times to stay quiet.'

Another factor is the ever-growing legal press which puts lawyers under greater pressure to provide more information.

'Solicitors are no different from anyone else,' she says. 'Their reputation is equivalent to a brand name, and damage to their reputation can cause damage to their business itself.'

What lawyers apparently haven't grasped is that it is not a good idea to slam the telephone down on a reporter. There is no point being outraged that a journalist has found a leak.

'Speaking to the press does funny things to people,' Ms Hewett says. 'All marketing matters involve a range of emotions from a massive ego attack to plain fear. In a crisis, fear tends to overtake ego and leads to you blurting out the first thing you think of - which can often be something arrogant.'

Her task is to suggest that she handles some of the calls, using the diplomatic reasoning that her time is less valuable than the lawyer's. One of the problems is that in a crisis, she is often dealing with different journalists, not just the legal correspondents with whom she - and possibly the lawyer and his firm - has built up a relationship.

Her game plan is to prepare ideally before a crisis breaks, a strategy for handling matters from the first call to a post mortem and also thinking ahead, for instance to an anniversary in the case of a major public event.

'The point is that the situation is going to be made public anyway. The lawyer will gain a lot by dealing with the press and handling it well. It will be seen as a sign of maturity that the client will recognise.'

She has also set up a system for helping the lawyer and the client in trials. The solicitor is trained in interview techniques, and a plan is prepared along with two news releases based on win or lose, approved by the solicitor and the

client.

One of her solicitor clients admitted during a training session that he had appeared on television running away from the cameras after a court case, with his client in tow. This kind of embarrassment can be avoided by planning, Ms Hewett says, such as setting up a photo session yourself.

Solicitors may be even more exercised when dealing with inquisitive legal journalists in times of internal political strife. But, says Ms Hewett, it is not difficult if you know how. These things don't explode overnight, but usually simmer for some time. That is when the PR adviser needs to be briefed, so that when the explosion comes, everyone will be prepared.

'The questions on the agenda are: What are the facts? What can you say legally? What do you want to say and what do I want to say - those two are usually different,' she says.

'I would argue strongly that you don't deny and you don't lie. I would try to get across the most positive aspect without avoiding the issue,' says Ms Hewett.

Let us suppose a case of fraud by a partner in a firm. The decisions to be taken begin with whether to issue a press release before or after a writ makes the matter public. 'I wouldn't counsel on every occasion to issue a release,' she says.

'But things tend to get out. Generally, it is better not to play cat and mouse with the press. You need to prepare answers to questions like 'Are you standing by the partner?' and 'Can you clarify his innocence or not?'. Again, the statement should include details of the firm's reputation and practice. You can't avoid the story but you can minimise the damage. Be brief and don't lie,' she advises.

Ms Hewett's crisis management audit and press handling service can be bought in whole or in part by clients. It can be a one-off training day for anyone from partner to secretary, or can be a full-blown mock crisis training.

The Law Society has said that in principle the service qualifies for validation as continuing education. Ms Hewett's application is in the post.

(Photograph omitted)

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