ITL #382 What do lawyers truly think about communicators in a crisis?

1 month, 3 weeks ago


International research among experienced crisis lawyers finds that communicators and legal professionals really do think differently. By Tony Jaques.

Just about every public relations professional has experienced crashing into a wall of legal arguments affecting what to say and what to do. And this conflict may never be more important than in the pressure-cooker environment of an organisational crisis.

The question is how real is this functional tug-of-war, or is it just a legend served up to frighten young communicators?

PR people are typically not reluctant to share their opinions about lawyers. But I wanted to know what lawyers think about communicators in a crisis.

To find out, in 2020 I partnered with reputation and change management consultancy SenateSHJ and its PROI overseas network to interview experienced crisis lawyers in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US and UK.

While a previous study in 2001 sought the views of legal professionals only in the United States [Reber, B. H., Cropp, F., & Cameron, G. T. (2001). Mythic Battles: Examining the Lawyer-Public Relations Counsellor Dynamic. Journal of Public Relations Research, 13(3), 187-218] this project is the first of its kind to interview lawyers in different national jurisdictions.

Improvements, but conflict is real

The survey respondents believe the relationship with communicators is improving, but most acknowledged that conflict between legal and communication advice is very real. It is clear from the responses that lawyers recognise their own shortcomings when it comes to crisis communication, yet they think communicators are too willing to disclose information in a crisis which may lead to liability or future litigation. They are also concerned about a perceived lack of legal awareness among communication professionals.

Although litigation was identified as an area particularly prone to conflict, when the lawyers were asked to nominate the main strength they bring to a crisis, the most common response – perhaps surprisingly – was not their legal expertise but an ability to be calm and predictable.

Several lawyers noted they are “officers of the court” and accordingly have a duty to integrity and truth and honestly representing the law. However one Canadian respondent identified a strength as being able to see beyond the strict letter of the law. “A strength we bring is knowing what is appropriate and good judgement, not just what is legally possible.”

At the same time, when asked to identify the main strength communicators bring to a crisis, the lawyers’ main focus was not on tactical skills, though they recognised the communicators’ ability to develop succinct messages and conceded lawyers were inclined to over-complicate messaging. Instead they nominated understanding of stakeholders as the communicator’s greatest strength. As one lawyer commented: “They understand the imperfections of human nature better than lawyers. They understand the gladiatorial nature of media better than lawyers.”

Speed versus accuracy

Another perceived area of conflict was balancing speed and accuracy. Almost every lawyer emphasised what they saw as the need for certainty before communicating in a crisis.

The lawyers’ responses overall appeared to show little evidence of an appreciation that in a genuine crisis it is very common that decisions must be made quickly on what is known at the time, which is typically incomplete.

Throughout the study – despite their differences in some areas – the lawyers recognised the need to work collaboratively with communicators in a crisis in the best interests of the organisation. Although some expressed a continuing lack of trust in communicators to do the right thing when a crisis strikes, a common view was that working together with mutual respect and open discussion was most likely to produce a consensus.

When it comes to implications for management of future crises, one of the most important issues reinforced by this study is that there is still a lack of clarity and full understanding of the differences between the roles of lawyers and communicators. 

Differing ways of thinking

The simple fact is that communicators and lawyers think differently. Communicators are most often intuitive thinkers, based on strategies and theories they have learned over the years. By contrast, lawyers are process thinkers, because the law is a process, with rules, standards and established procedures. Lawyers tend to look for problems to solve and risks to avoid rather than opportunities to communicate. They look at the legality of a planned response, while the communicator is thinking about public acceptability and the impact on reputation.

In general, such different approaches to the crisis or potential crisis arise from different training; from different professional language; from each having a different knowledge base, different professional networks; and often different ideas about objectives and tactics.

The most obvious difference – clearly identified in the study – is that lawyers will generally want to say as little as possible to protect against potential liability while communicators will generally want to say more to protect reputation; to meet the reasonable expectations of stakeholders; and be seen to take action

It’s also true that lawyers, by training, tend to look at what has come before, at precedent, while communicators need to be looking out to the horizon, anticipating what might happen next and how a decision could impact the reputation of the organisation.

Facts and perceptions

Similarly, lawyers want to keep focused on the facts, whereas communicators accept the importance of facts but also understand the critical importance of perception and that facts alone don’t win an argument.

Moreover, the lawyer’s training is that you can win by the force of logic and reasoning. This might be true in the controlled environment of the courtroom, but communicators know that out in the wider world, facts and logic are frequently outweighed by emotions and feelings and social media fallacies.

While my study looked specifically at lawyers’ perceptions of communicators, it is clear that both “sides” need to understand the other better. More mutual respect and less confusion can only serve to make for more effective crisis management.

The full report can be downloaded here.


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The Author

Tony Jaques

Tony Jaques, Managing Director, Issue Outcomes P/L; Editor, Managing Outcomes, the online issue and crisis newsletter; and author of Crisis Proofing: How to save your company from disaster

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