Mark Hubbard, SVP of McGuireWoods Consulting's in-house advocacy and mobilization team, cautions companies to determine their fact-based story and consider long-term risks before responding publicly to a crisis.
CCBJ: You regularly work with companies to manage reputation risks and manage crisis communications. What are some common themes you see in this area?
Mark Hubbard: The most important objective for any company or entity that's facing a reputational crisis is to gather facts quickly, determine the fact-based story that you want to tell, and then begin sharing that information and narrative immediately.
Having a process already in place for what to do in the event of a crisis as well as conducting practice drills in advance can be extremely beneficial to companies and their leadership teams, as well as general and in-house counsel. When a real crisis strikes, there is not time to develop a process – the actual crisis takes all the air out of the room and demands full attention. So, it's all about planning and preparation in advance, which will make an organization far more nimble at the time they are confronting something that could impact their reputation. The bottom line is this: if you’re not telling your own story, others are going to be doing the talking for you, and that’s extremely risky. And if you’re not talking at all because you’re too busy trying to formulate what it is you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it, and who's going to be approving what you say, then here's a void that leads to speculation and theories. So it's critical that you gather the facts, quickly formulate the message around those facts and are the one controlling the narrative right out of the gate. And the only way you can do that is with advanced preparation.
Tell us about how you manage immediate publicity priorities versus longer range legal risk?
If you survive a trial, but your reputation is in shambles, what have you really accomplished? And generally, it's the role of the GC and outside counsel to help you prevail at trial. Having a coordinated effort between your legal team and your communications team helps to ensure that both your short-term trial strategy and your long-term reputation management strategy align.
There's a fine line between what you can say in the court of public opinion and what you can say that will influence what happens in a court of law. And that has to be part of the strategy. That’s why having a communications team embedded with your litigation team can make a significant difference. It's a unique service the team at McGuireWoods and McGuireWoods Consulting offer to our clients by having both under the same roof.
It's also why it's imperative the general counsel at any company have a key role in both the crisis management and the crisis communications strategy. Every big company, every good company, has a crisis management plan and a communications plan. Those plans must function in concert with, not independent of, one another.
How do you differ in your approach to representing individuals versus corporations or entities?
Individuals require more reassurance and explanation of every step along the way. Corporations tend to have several more levels for input, feedback, revisions of strategy and messages, and then final approval – which in some respects, gives them more confidence in their decisions. Every case is unique, but all are extremely time intensive. Responding to a crisis can be a 24-hour, seven day a week commitment. What defines how much time you will need to commit ultimately is how well you respond and react at the very beginning of the crisis. If you start to approach a crisis and have missteps or make misstatements and shortly thereafter need to clarify, correct or re-explain, you end up playing constant defense. And if you're going to be on offense, you need several elements simultaneously: a defined strategy, quick assessment of the facts, drafting and approval of your fact-based messages that are going to resonate, and a good communicator who's going to deliver those messages.
Again, every case is unique, but the same toolkit is utilized for all cases. And having a structure and strategy ahead of time allows you to focus less on the kit and more on the tools to get the job done.
Tell us about your work with former U.S. Representative Aaron Schock of Illinois and how your collaboration with other members of the McGuireWoods team helped to bring him a positive outcome.
Litigation communications are unique, and that's because there are times when you don't want to be saying anything at all publicly. There are times when you want to be saying very little publicly and for it to be focused, and then there are times where you really want to be shouting from the rooftops. Politicians naturally tend to have much to say and want to be saying it constantly. With former Congressman Aaron Schock, he really trusted us, both the legal team and his communications team. And I think the fact that the two teams were already partners and working together helped tremendously, but it wasn't easy and did not come naturally for Aaron. He did recognize that this was going to be a long haul, and in the end it turned out to be a four-year ordeal. Fortunately, Aaron also recognized it is important that once your advisors develop a strategy that you trust them and stick to that strategy.
The attorneys on our team did a fantastic job of keeping me – as the face of communications – informed and updated on all of the legal strategies and proceedings. I was able to take that information and put it into layman's terms and frame it in the best context that would help establish our case in the court of public opinion over time.
Another key factor is having a communications team that has strong media contacts and relationships that can work with reporters one-on-one throughout the process, because trust with the media is also incredibly important when you are defending somebody's reputation.
Published May 14, 2019.