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Reputation vs litigation: The communications conundrum

February 19, 2019 by Alex Johnson

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I was at a conference last week facilitating a session on crisis communication and reputational issues.   A delegate asked the panel ‘What’s more important - reputation or litigation when determining your crisis response?’

We’ve seen what happens when the response is heavily influenced by lawyers – it often results in one that seeks to avoid blame and, in doing so, lacks any genuine empathy. The death of two children from carbon monoxide poisoning on a Thomas Cook holiday in 2006 showed just how ill-judged a lawyer led approach can be. Over the course of nine years the company refused to apologise to the children’s parents. 

Peter Fankhauser took over as CEO in late 2014 - after some time in post he reflected on the company’s stance: ‘I was confronted with a situation that had gone on for years and was dragging and dragging. Even though I was new to the job, I somehow got stuck in this legacy. I got caught in this corporate behaviour. I listened too much to lawyers.’  This failure to apologise, (until Peter did so in 2015) showed Thomas Cook as an unempathetic, unfeeling corporate giant in a situation in which everyone else could see the human tragedy and sadness.

So how do companies navigate this issue? Who do they, or should they listen to, when the worst happens? The answer is communicators AND lawyers – a good crisis management response is an informed one. It means listening to both sides of the debate and choosing a path that reflects the values of a company not just one that avoids a hefty fine. 

Those companies that successfully navigate this thorny issue have lawyers and communicators that work in partnership long before a crisis happens – understanding the challenges that a serious issue or crisis presents to their respective roles. If the worst does happen, they can work together to provide a communications solution that demonstrates empathy and protects reputation without opening the organisation to unwarranted litigation.

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Alex Johnson

Consultant

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