Crisis communications: ask the lawyers first

Interesting views from a conference of education lawyers in the USA as reported in the Chroncicle.

Specific comments, in a post-Virginia Tech context, included:

Avoid email

“Those e-mail messages always come back to haunt you,” Wendy S. White, a vice president and general counsel at the University of Pennsylvania, said at the annual conference of the National Association of College and University Attorneys. “It is especially bad when people discuss preliminary findings or theories.” Such messages are almost always found by lawyers for plaintiffs as part of the discovery process in a lawsuit, and even if the findings or theories are only preliminary, they could be difficult for institutions to defend later.

You can’t avoid email

Robb Jones, another lawyer on a panel with Ms. White, said many attorneys “wish there was no such things as e-mail,” but “that’s just the way we communicate.” Asked if clients should communicate by instant message or text message, which don’t leave the same electronic trail that e-mail does, Mr. Jones demurred. “I have never gotten that far in thinking about it,” he said in the interview. “A lot of businesses — I don’t know about colleges and universities so much — have banned [instant messaging]. It’s just too much of a distraction.”

Get the lawyers to decide the line

A speaker at another session, Christopher Simpson, a former university administrator who is now a consultant in crisis communications, said lawyers must become more involved in crafting a response, and protecting the image of an institution, when a crisis or tragedy strikes. “If things go badly, I contend you haven’t done your job,” he admonished the lawyers here. He said that lawyers think too much about legal minefields that speaking to reporters might create, and not about a consistent message that will portray an institution in the most positive light possible.

Thinking about the practicalities in a crisis situation, and in particular in a UK context, it would seem to me that trying to do the right thing would always take priority over consulting the lawyers. As for email, in many crisis situations it would not seem to be the ideal communications tool in any case.

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