Reputation management: how to navigate a PR disaster

Social media has made it easier than ever for negative stories to spread like wildfire. Reputation management specialist Nick McAleenan sets out what to consider if you find your firm in the eye of the storm.
A group of journalists stands on a doorstep, holding microphones and cameras up to ask questions.
Photograph: South_agency

Law firms, like all businesses, face reputational challenges.

Clients post bad ‘reviews’ on social media; staff get into scrapes outside work; and sensitive files get left in public and promptly fall into the wrong hands.

Even seemingly low-level incidents should be handled with care. Negative stories can result in:

  • loss of business
  • damage to staff morale and recruitment efforts
  • harm to the public’s perception of the business
  • unwanted scrutiny from regulators, and
  • in some extreme cases, litigation

Reputation remains a pivotal component of a law firm’s offering. Ultimately, we make buying decisions from people we know, like or trust.

What kinds of risks do firms face?

Once upon a time, reputational risk was focused on the activity of traditional media, such as newspapers.

These days, threats are far more likely to emerge from social media in the form of online reviews and trolls.

Equally, the rise of the citizen activist and bloggers means a firm’s online profile is important.

An everyday scenario might involve a bad leaver from the firm.

They go onto LinkedIn and post serious allegations against the business: it has a toxic culture; managers are bullies; staff are harassed in the office.

These allegations are being published by the former employee to direct contacts of the firm, to existing staff and, inevitably, to clients and prospective clients.

The firm will have to consider the best way forward.

Is there any truth in the allegations? Does the person concerned simply bear a grudge?

Social media is low-hanging fruit for the media, and so there is a risk that allegations could be published more widely.

Tips for handling a reputational crisis

How can we deal with issues in the moment? There are some basic rules of thumb worth bearing in mind.

Scan the horizon

You can’t accurately predict the source of every reputational problem, but you can certainly try.

Some issues emerge from one-off incidents, and others appear after a series of events. Their roots might, hypothetically, lie in:

  • the profile of your clients
  • the areas of practice you specialise in, or
  • dealings with the local community

You should try to anticipate what might come down the track and think about your greatest risk areas.

Be your own tabloid journalist and ask yourself: what would the media find interesting?

Social media engagement and monitoring of online platforms can identify emerging issues, or problems with inadequate service and communication breakdowns.

Environmental, social and governance (ESG), sustainability and discrimination issues are currently acting as lightning rods for criticism. Is your firm exposed?

Have a plan

If a reputational issue blows up, it’s useful to have a team in place to deal with it.

You could have a checklist of points which can help assess a situation.

Think about whose contact details the team needs to have to hand to effectively manage reputational issues.

If you have already identified a specific risk, you could have a skeleton press release on file and ready for review.

As the fortunes of the England football team demonstrate, no plan ever survives contact with the enemy.

However, having a plan can buy crucial time and help to manage a stressful situation.

Understand your options

It’s worth considering best next steps before responding to a reputation management issue.

There are usually a range of different options and potential responses available in any given scenario.

These could include everything from doing absolutely nothing in response, to pressing the nuclear button and applying to the High Court for an injunction.

You may need to stop a particular publication or story or demand take down of online content, or it might well be a case of controlling the message and managing relations with third parties to explain the firm’s perspective.

If something is published, it’s useful to understand what legal remedies might be available to you, such as seeking an apology and correction, demanding take down of the allegations or even compensation.

You can also take stock of operational considerations, and tailor your public relations (PR) strategy appropriately.

Build a team

You might find it useful to take expert PR or media law advice before deciding on the preferred way forward.

Professional input can help to identify the best response, and potentially craft a media statement or required correspondence.

Ultimately, such advice could help you to protect goodwill in the firm, understand risk, avoid legal liability and support any public communications.

Successful business leaders can and do use their own experience and commercial judgement in handling reputational challenges.

But they also know where to go to get help when they need it.

Hoisting the cow out of the ditch

Reputation management problems can appear complicated, but focusing on the key steps will help.

Anne Mulcany, the former CEO of Xerox, famously recalled advice she was once given by a customer. She was struggling to navigate her way through a particular crisis.

The customer, a Texan, listened to her predicament. He took a moment to ponder, and then said she was like “a farmer whose cow got stuck in a ditch”.

What was the solution?

“The farmer had to get the cow out of the ditch, find out how the cow got into the ditch, and then do whatever it takes to stop the cow getting into the ditch again”.

Hoisting the cow out of the ditch isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

However, adopting a careful approach to reputation management is a sensible strategy and represents time well spent.

I want to know more

Our practice note on social media will help you to understand its benefits and risks, as well as your ethical obligations as a solicitor.

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