Situation: A senior lawyer from a top tier firm is currently the subject of rumors circulating in the press, claiming that he, as well as some other well-known business personalities, are involved in child pornography. Up to this point, the media has been focusing on the other personalities in the group. However, two young lawyers have just approached the Managing Director, claiming that they have uncovered child pornographic material on one of the firm’s computer files while working on that partner’s matters. Advise the Managing Partner as to how he should handle the situation.

Advice: A crisis situation presents enormous threats and represents significant risk to the company’s reputation, operations, market share, sales, employee morale, and overall financial performance. There is little room for error and response time must be quick. That is why planning and preparing for a crisis is so important.

This is a classic managerial blunder: companies fail to respond to problems in a timely matter. To explain, emergencies MUST be dealt with immediately.

Smart companies will establish early warning alerts to identify problems likely to escalate in intensity, cause unwanted outside attention, damage the company’s public image or reputation, or damage the bottom line in any way. Companies involved in situations such as the one described must act – they must not hesitate to make decisions. They must identify and respond to early signs of impending problems instead of denying that they exist. In this case, the rumors that were already circulating should have tipped off senior management to begin crisis management and communications procedures.

This is a classic managerial blunder: companies fail to respond to problems in a timely matter. To explain, emergencies MUST be dealt with immediately. Problems, on the other hand, need to be addressed rapidly (but not necessarily immediately), as those problems that linger or are not rectified usually lead to emergencies.

So in walk the two young lawyers with evidence about the partner’s illegal activity and the Managing Partner is seemingly caught flat-footed. Here are three things he should do:

Isolate the problem. Perceptions must be controlled because public opinion is all about perception, NOT reality. Therefore, public and internal communications must establish perceptions first. The public is a very skeptical. More and more frequently, companies and governmental agencies are “guilty until proven innocent.” Arrogance, saying “no comment” and/or responding with terse denials about questioned ethics are seldom, if ever, successful crisis communications strategies.

This is about one partner and his outrageous and illegal behavior, not about the firm, any of its other lawyers and how they practice or serve clients.

The problem for the firm seems to be that a firm computer houses the illicit and illegal material and that certain personnel were exposed to that material while working on firm business.

Fix the problem as quickly as possible (i.e. immediately).

Assuming that the material on the computer is indeed child pornography, notify the police and turn the evidence over to them.

Terminate the partner.

Use the crisis as an opportunity to do better. For instance, the firm should offer help and counseling (but not his job) to the fallen partner.  It should consider donating money or pro-bono services to child welfare groups in the community, etc.

Communicate. In the court of public opinion the defense MUST always take the stand. The press is driven by their need to tell a story. Failure to provide a coherent explanation about matters under question means the press will fill their stories with messages detrimental to one’s own. Do not stay silent.

Develop appropriate message points based on the facts. When responding to questions from the media, remember to communicate the truth (as much as needed to fulfill the public’s need to know), and to comfort all affected audiences by exuding compassion and understanding of their concerns.

Communicate to internal audiences first – especially in this situation where people will be incredulous about the news of their partner’s behavior. Making sure internal audiences hear the story from organization leaders before hearing it from the press builds and enforces trust.  Internal support is critical because this audience is often used by the news media to perpetuate unflattering messages. The Managing Partner wants everyone to know that management understands the matter is shocking and unfortunate and that it has dealt with the situation decisively.

Designate one person to act as a spokesman for the organization. RARELY ever should that be the firm’s lawyer (if it has retained one). Most likely in this instance it should be the Managing Partner, although a senior female partner would also send an appropriate message of concern and disgust. As a point of explanation, top executives are not always the best spokespersons. Sometimes technical experts or third-party allies are best. Deciding who speak is critical and says a lot about how serious the company considers the problem. Do not have a Managing Partner respond to a minor problem – the press will think it is more important than it is. Do not have mid-level spokespersons talk to the press when there is a tragedy (i.e. health effects, loss of life, etc.) – the company will look callous. Make sure the spokesperson is media trained. **Such training is perhaps the single most important factor in dealing with a crisis.

Educate the media – they are the intermediaries between the organization’s story and the public. Demystify complex arguments and provide as much information as possible in order to create an on-going, beneficial dialogue.

If managed properly, the resulting stories should be all about the individual with brief mentions that he was a partner at the firm of x, y, and z and has since been terminated. Any other information about the firm in articles should have to do with its shock and disgust at the partner’s behavior, its sympathy for the children and their families and its efforts to help in the community.

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