Public Relations and Legal Liability: Coordination Is Key

In this day and age, news travels fast, and news of crises travels even faster.  Take, as an example, the forcible removal of Dr. David Dao from a United Airlines flight by officers last year.  The action, in which Dr. Dao was violently dragged off a plane after being seated in order to make room for a United employee, was videoed on a passenger’s cell phone and widely distributed—resulting in a public-relations mess for United.

Managing publicity around a crisis requires quick assimilation of facts and information, a soft touch, and strategic foresight.  This set of aptitudes requires good coordination between a legal team and a public-relations team, as virtually every crisis has the potential both to harm a company’s reputation and to result in potentially costly litigation.

Lawyers and public-relations firms have different strategic focuses, but they are both critically useful during a crisis.  Often, the perception is that lawyers want to shut down all communications in the face of a crisis, while public-relations firms want to flood the media with messaging to get ahead of the news cycle.  While these are gross generalizations of what lawyers and public-relations personnel do in the face of a crisis, there is some truth to each.  Importantly, however, companies need to balance and blend the two approaches, such that tonally appropriate statements are made by the right people at the company, while all factual statements are verified before publishing and all statements are weighed for their potential impact on a future claim—all with a strategic goal in mind regarding how the company intends to address any such claim.

Not every crisis will have immediate answers as to what exactly happened or who may have been at fault.  In these murky situations, the careful construction of the content of communications is most critical, both from a public-relations perspective and from a strategic legal perspective.  The crisis-response team, including lawyers and public-relations personnel, should assess the facts and the risks and should be publishing only comments that are accurate, helpful to the company, compassionate and empathetic to the situation, and consistent with the legal strategy to be implemented.

Going back to the incident with Dr. Dao and United, it does not appear that such a coordinated, strategic effort was made.  In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the CEO of United promptly published a statement indicating that the company was going to reach out to the passenger to resolve the situation.  But later that day, the CEO sent a letter to all employees—promptly made public—in which he gave a recap based on “preliminary reports” from employees.  He indicated that he stood behind all the employees and commended them “for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”  The CEO’s letter then described Dr. Dao as “disruptive and belligerent” and defiant of the crew and security officials.

Days later, the CEO issued another statement, this time deeply apologizing to Dr. Dao for being forcibly removed and noting that “[n]o one should ever be mistreated this way.”  The CEO took “full responsibility” and promised to “work to make it right.”  While the legal claim was settled before filing, the above haphazard communications certainly didn’t help in addressing it.

The United experience is a good example of how a company can get tripped up by saying too much too soon (blaming a “disruptive and belligerent” passenger and praising employees based on “preliminary reports”) and by not saying enough immediately (not showing empathy for how Dr. Dao was treated).  The communications made the situation worse for United, both from a public-relations perspective and with regard to the potential legal liability.

–Coby Cohen

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