Communicating Effectively When Bad News Breaks
This originally was an article written by Steve Alschuler for Law360.
Law360, New York (August 19, 2009, 11:13 AM ET) — We recently met with a member of the executive committee of a large, well-known law firm, which had been the subject of a lot of negative media coverage in the wake of some layoffs, partner defections and other cost-cutting measures.
He felt the firm’s actions had been misunderstood and mischaracterized by the media, which had led to misunderstandings and a disintegration of morale within the firm — which in turn threatened to cause more defections and potentially a loss of confidence in the firm by its clients.
What surprised him most about what they’d been through? It was clear that media reports contained information that could only have been obtained from sources inside the firm.
The idea that people he worked with every day would leak sensitive information without understanding all the facts, that they would participate in feeding media coverage that portrayed the firm in a negative light, was shocking to him.
As this economic downturn has taken hold, virtually every large law firm — like other businesses — has had to take cost-cutting measures, from cancellation of events to layoffs.
And they’ve had to deal with shrinking profits per partner, cuts in associate classes and salaries and other unpleasant news, all of which can become the subject of headlines in the legal press.
Even though these are all issues about which law firms counsel clients every day, when they face them in their own lives, they sometimes underestimate the importance of strategic communications and end up playing defense after the story starts playing out in the media.
In fact, there are certain realities that any law firm dealing with its own bad news needs to take into consideration.
Controlling the information. In most cases, especially with law firms, especially when dealing with layoffs or other cuts, you can’t expect to control the information.
The people affected will start e-mailing, blogging and talking to the media immediately. Reporters will call sources they know at the firm and all too many of them will be willing to talk, whether they are well informed or not. The question is: What will they say?
The only way people are going to have accurate information is if you give it to them. In dealing with personnel matters, there are a lot of things you will not want to talk about outside a tight circle.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t talk about it at all. People want to know how events will affect them. Are there going to be more layoffs? Could they lose their own jobs? Is the firm in trouble? Is the firm going to break up?
If you don’t provide information, the vacuum will be filled by gossip. And it’s amazing how quickly that gossip can turn apocalyptic.
Trying simply to ride out inaccurate reports and not dignifying them with a response can be dangerous. Bad news feeds on itself. Partners who are important to the firm start feeling concerned. Clients start feeling concerned. Morale declines. It is easy to edge toward a tipping point without realizing it.
Since it is nearly impossible to control this type of information, it is often best to communicate about it directly and as openly as possible.
Having members of the executive committee know what’s going on may not be enough. Disseminating accurate information could be accomplished by having members of the executive committee talk one on one with practice group leaders and ask those practice group leaders to talk with members of their groups.
Give them some support in handling these conversations, including talking points that describe what happened, why the decision was made and what it means to the firm as a whole and everyone who works there.
The firm’s chairman or managing partner can also send a series of e-mails to the firm, the first of which mirrors these conversations and is written in a way that conveys a sense of confidence in the future.
A series of well-written e-mails can give people a sense of pride in the firm and lift everyone up by demonstrating that positive things continue to happen and that the firm’s leadership has a strong vision and the capability to move forward.
Sustaining this program over time — letting the firm hear from leadership frequently and not only during a time of crisis — is also critical.
It will foster a sense of connection and purpose, demonstrate the values and vision that bind the firm together, prevent false rumors from taking hold and build a greater degree of loyalty over time.
In addition, these kinds of direct communications tend to have several immediate impacts. The buzz around the firm will change. People will start talking about whatever you’ve just sent them, rather than speculating in the face of a vacuum of information.
You can also assume that these communications will be leaked to the media, which is fine since they convey the messages you want people to hear, that you think are important, in your own words.
They will help to shore up your base. Everyone, whether a partner in a major law firm or a clerk in a mailroom, wants to feel connected to their employer. They want to feel like they’re a part of something. They want to understand their role and how it fits into the larger context.
When people feel connected in this way, they tend to be more productive, more ambitious and more loyal. When they feel disconnected, they are easily alienated, more inclined to believe rumors and more inclined to spread them.
When the people you work with go home and talk to their spouses or neighbors about what’s happening at the firm, what will they say? If a client asks them about media reports about the firm’s financial health, what will they say? If a reporter calls, what will they say?
While there is no communications strategy that will guarantee the result, you can at least provide the tools and information necessary for those colleagues to have conversations that would make you proud.