Because one of the tasks of public relations professionals is to handle crises, it is not uncommon for them to deal with legal issues. When this is the case, the organization will often get a lawyer involved as well. This means the public relations professional and the lawyer must work together to chart a course that will both manage the legal risk and protect the organization’s reputation.
However, public relations professionals and lawyers are often at odds with the type of advice that they give. Because a lawyer’s first concern is protecting their client from legal risks, they will want to prevent their client from speaking out so that there is not added information that can be used against them. On the other hand, the public relations professional’s first concern is to protect their client’s reputation, so they will want to say something to try to fix the situation. They both have the same goal of protecting their client, but they have different ways of doing so. As both opinions are valid, they must both be considered by organizations when deciding what actions to take.
Let’s take a look at an example with the ride-sharing company Uber. Uber has been dealing with a growing crisis in recent weeks as story after story has added to the scandal surrounding the company. It started back in January when the #DeleteUber movement was sparked on Twitter about the company’s ties to Donald Trump. The company lost 200,000 customers in a single weekend. From then on, several negative stories have come out against the company, such as making claims of employee sexual harassment and drug use, getting sued by Google for stealing intellectual property, and lying about their role in a recent accident with a self-driving car. What used to be the world’s most valuable start up is now dealing with crisis after crisis, and it is still not clear how they are going to get through it.
Specifically in the claims of Uber stealing Google’s intellectual property, they would definitely have lawyers present to advise them on what actions to take. Google’s self-driving company, Waymo, claimed that a team of ex-Google engineers stole their design for the lidar laser sensor that allows self-driving cars to map the environment around them. In response to this accusation, not only did Uber issue a public statement, which is the job of the public relations department, but they also hired a team of lawyers to help them fight the lawsuit. It is very likely that the lawyers want Uber to remain silent on the issue until their day in court comes, so the company only issued a short statement saying they take the allegation seriously and will review the matter carefully. It is a fine line to walk between saying too much and not saying enough.
Lawyers and public relations professionals must work together to serve the client. Before any action is taken, public relations professionals should run it by lawyers to ensure they are not subjecting their client into any more legal risk than is necessary. If lawyers and public relations professionals can respect each other and work together, they can provide the best outcome for their client.