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Grace Stanton Rieger: How Legal & PR Work Together to Manage Risk

Palo Alto, CA, November 14, 2015 --( According to Grace Stanton Rieger of SR Crisis PR, "In corporate cultures where companies must pay attention to legal concerns and regulatory compliance, an equally important form of liability — potential damage to one's reputation — can easily be overlooked." In a speech to the International Association of Business Communicators, Stanton Rieger talked about the importance for legal and PR teams to work together to manage a company's risk. Following are excerpts from her presentation.

Many leading companies have learned two lessons. One is that reputational liability must be added to legal liability as a top-line risk management concern. The second is that the aftermath of a crisis is too late for an organization to strike that balance. The culture it establishes in advance is just as important as — perhaps even more important than — how it reacts in the definitive first days of crisis.

The irony is that organizations are often thinking of protecting their reputations when they guard against legal liability at all costs. Yet it is precisely that kind of thinking — elevating legal over reputational liability rather than thinking of the two as closely intertwined — that often gets organizations into difficulty.

The challenge is enhanced by the fact that lawyers are often trained, and understandably so, to consider legal liability above all else. Moreover, they are right to see legal liability as a threat to an organization's reputation. Legal issues are clearly important, but not the ones that necessarily should rule the day.

Of course, preparation is nothing new in the world of crisis response.

A culture of anticipation includes making a high-ranking officer, preferably a CEO, specifically accountable for reputation. Executives who expect to be measured on that basis are likelier to foster cultures in which potential issues are surfaced quickly and forthrightly. Some create "devil's advocate" panels to help smoke those issues out and assure they are dealt with thoughtfully. Moreover, anticipation requires that close relationships be built between communications officers and legal counsels well in advance so that each understands the necessary — and two-way — synchronicity that should govern their relationship. Communications officers must understand the potential impact of legal liability on reputation. Attorneys, in equal measure, must understand that reputation — just as much as and sometimes more than legal liability — cuts to the heart of a company's business interests. During a crisis, those interests often dictate transparency even if it may enhance exposure to litigation. But that balance must be negotiated before a crisis strikes.

Channels between communications and legal officers are not the only ones that a culture of anticipation requires be built. Especially where a crisis may involve multiple business or geographic units, silos must be overcome in advance. Preferably, procedures that enable streamlined approval for releasing information during crises should be established as well.

Steps like those add up to a comprehensive crisis architecture that does not seek to foretell every crisis scenario but does anticipate that crises will arise and that organizations can be structured to deal with them effectively. Organizations that do so can both guard against legal liability and protect their most valuable asset: their reputations.
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