[Editor’s note: The following guest post from Silicon Valley-based writer Leslie Kelsay leverages her previous experience directing strategic and crisis communications to help us understand the unintended consequences that come with over-lawyering a public issue.]
Don’t Let Good Attorneys Make Bad News Worse
By Leslie Kelsay
We get it: Corporate counsel’s job is to protect the organization from risk. But crisis communicators often must exert authority on clear messaging with attorneys who would sacrifice clarity hoping to minimize future legal or financial risk, even when they don’t have to.
Take Nabisco parent company Mondelez when limited batches of Chewy Chips Ahoy! were recalled in April 2019.
Mondelez’s press release said the recall was because of “an unexpected solidified ingredient.” They indicated “some reports of potential adverse health effects have been received.”
What was a cookie consumer to think? The worst, that’s what.
Rat droppings? Globs of grease from the machine that forms the dough? Blobs of curdled milk?
Somewhere in the communications approval chain was an attorney or two who wanted to tamp down the potential economic value of existing claims and limit the number of potentially false claims.
But the murky language raised more headlines and consumer concerns than the recall itself.
What was the “unexpected solidified ingredient”?
There were clumps of cornstarch in the recalled batches. And the “adverse health effects”? Gagging mostly, perhaps a chipped tooth.
No one would issue a press release saying, “Hey, it’s cornstarch. Won’t kill you. Spit it out and send the product code to us for a coupon for future cookies.”
But in the zone between Mondelez and “spit it out,” crisis communicators have to advocate for simplicity.
What can crisis communicators do before the crisis to be trusted in crafting messages that support immediate needs and long-term objectives?
- Build a relationship with attorneys in the approval chain before the chain is activated. When you see a great example of another company’s clear communications balanced with risk management, send it along with a short note.
- Keep both electronic versions and an old-fashioned paper file of “best of” and “worst of” examples. Have them handy in approval conferences or calls, and use to illustrate why you are making the recommendation you are. Periodically circulate illustrative examples to C-Suite members, if that’s a possibility.
- When the crisis is over, have a specific conversation with the attorneys involved and ask “How well did this work for us? What did we learn?” Even 10 minutes can make a difference for the company when the next crisis occurs.
Leslie Kelsay is a Silicon Valley-based writer with a background in journalism and the non-profit sector. For 15 years, she directed award-winning strategic and crisis communications for hospitals in rapidly-changing ownership, organized labor and healthcare reform environments.