Oregon State Bar Bulletin — APRIL 2007
Parting Thoughts
A Disaster Within
By Brain Gard

In a recent issue of the bar Bulletin, Cliff Collins focused on planning for disasters that disrupt the operations of law firms ("Keeping the Ship Afloat"). His article emphasized the impact of disasters on the physical aspects of operating the firm, from computers to office space to records retention. It is easy to assume these sorts of things will happen to some other firm, in some other city. Even though Gard & Gerber is not a law firm, the article applies to any professional services organization, and we learned from it.

The article also made me think about another aspect of natural disasters as well as legal and business crises: the quality and process of decision-making and how this crucial function can be dramatically affected by crisis.

I am often engaged to assist in crisis communications or in what has become known in our field as litigation public relations. Early in my career, I thought it was sufficient to manage the media in a crisis. Now I know that it is equally important to support — to manage — the client
as well.

For example, when a business person is accused publicly of a white-collar crime or an ethical indiscretion, it’s a crisis that can ruin a career or a family. He or she may be the only person experiencing this disaster but it is one nonetheless.

In these situations, it is easy to become emotional, whether one shows it or not. Often in a corporate setting, the very people who have worked hard to build a reputation find that same reputation at risk because of the threat of bad publicity. The day after a critical news story, it is common to "feel" as if everyone in the coffee shop recognizes you and is talking about the story as you stand in line waiting.

These same people are often good decision-makers; they are used to making decisions and not used to having them questioned. But decisions driven in part by emotions, usually suppressed or controlled but now strangely assertive, need to be questioned. This is one more reason why it is so important to have legal counsel and, with regard to communications and the media, public relations counsel. These experts are once removed from the crisis; they have "distance" — the objectivity that is central to good decision-making.

I am a fan of the "rule of three," which, as near as I can tell, applies to all things. In any event, here are three rules I apply in these situations:

John Wooden, the remarkable UCLA coach, said, "Don’t hurry, but be quick." Often, the right thing to do initially is to slow down the decision-making, to pause and assess the situation if only for a few minutes. In a highly emotional setting, a bias for action can also be bias for mistakes.

In 1830, Judge Samuel Putnum counseled, "Act with prudence, discretion, intelligence and regard for the safety of capital as well as income." This applies to media relations as well as to investing. The instinct is to win. Sometimes the better goal is simply not to lose. An intact personal or corporate reputation can fight another day.

Fittingly for this article, the concept of justice is a paramount feeling in a media crisis. The center of attention almost always feels that an injustice is being carried out against them and that a successful outcome involves a hoped-for equality of suffering, an eye for an eye. But revenge, no matter how restrained, is almost always better saved for later.

In our culture, it is frowned upon to admit the effect of emotion on one’s ability to function. But it can happen to anyone. Lisa Nowak, the astronaut recently embroiled in a personal crisis, is skilled beyond the imagination of most of us and has traveled beyond the imagination of most of us. Nevertheless, she shares with all of us the capacity to behave irrationally.

Just as we need to ensure the backup of computer records, so we need to ensure the emotional backup of employees and clients in a disaster or crisis.

Brian Gard is president of Gard & Gerber, an advertising, public relations and public affairs firm in Portland. He also serves as chair of the board of the Oregon Business Association and has participated in two CLE seminars.

© 2007 Brian Gard

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