Crisis communications planning for CMOs: Q&A with Deborah Farone

• 4 minute read

Crisis management is a now a major part of a law firm CMO’s portfolio. When things go south, management increasingly looks to the CMO for guidance.

Just ask Deborah Farone. As the former CMO at two of the world’s most successful law firms — Debevoise & Plimpton and Cravath, Swaine & Moore — she knows what it’s like to be in the hot seat.

After two decades working inside law firms, Farone recently struck out on her own and founded Farone Advisors LLC, where she counsels law firms on a range of issues, including marketing management and crisis and reputation work. We recently caught up with her to talk about a CMO’s role in preparing for and managing a crisis.

What kind of crisis planning do you recommend for CMOs?

Have a communications plan. Your mind can be pulled in a million different directions during a crisis, so it helps to have a game plan. Even though you can never predict what a crisis will entail, a plan where you’ve mapped out various scenarios, and have necessary checklists and contact information, helps ground you and gives you a framework.

Also, have crisis counselors on call. When I was a CMO, I found it invaluable to have a second opinion. I wanted to make sure that if I was going to advise our leadership and provide direction, I was 100 percent sure about the advice I was giving.

And make sure you and your colleagues know and meet regularly with the reporters who cover your firm, particularly when things are not going awry. It’s common sense. If there is a situation where you need to buy yourself an extra hour to get back to a reporter with details, or have an off-the-record conversation, chances are if a reporter knows you, they’ll be more likely to accommodate those requests and know you are good for your word. Those relationships often take years to build.

How about crisis planning for the firm in general?

It’s important that partners are aware of the potential risks to an enterprise, so if and when a crisis hits, they’re prepared. That might mean inviting someone from the government, a cybersecurity firm or someone from your insurance underwriter to talk to the firm about various types of risks. One of the best talks I heard on the topic was at an ALM program at which Peter Beshar of Marsh & McLennan spoke. It’s all about sensitizing people to the threats and giving them the tools to mitigate them before they hit.

Who at a law firm should be involved in crisis response?

I can’t imagine not involving the firm’s leadership, whether that is a Chair or Managing Partner. I really believe, as a confidant of that person, that they need to be brought in immediately. The Executive Director or COO should be involved if any other administrative departments are impacted or involved. If the crisis touches on technology, of course you’ll want the head of IT involved. It really does depend on the type of crisis.

In general, I tend to err on the side of telling more of the trusted senior management over less. I think it’s better to get more people under the tent. For one, you want to avoid ever having anyone be blindsided by the news and second, you need to consider different constituents and how they will be impacted.

What’s your view about when to be proactive versus reactive during a crisis?

It’s never black and white. You first need to understand the legal issues and the parameters that are set both by your own firm’s leadership and by any governmental agency that may be involved. That will inform what the firm can and cannot say.

Inside those parameters is where the key decisions need to be made. I tend to end up with a chart on my desk of circles representing the relevant constituents needed to communicate with, including the internal audience (lawyers and staff), clients, alumni, vendors, maybe even recruiters or law schools. Press is an important part of that equation, but you need to think in a holistic way, about first doing the right thing. Then comes the messaging. You want to get a similar if not same message to all of these groups. You have to constantly be going back to those circles, thinking about those constituents and asking yourself, “Are we doing the right thing?”

Once a crisis hits, what’s the first move for a CMO?

Clear your desk and calendar and know that you will be dedicated to handling a crisis for the next few days. Be an internal fact-finder, and ask lots of questions, then start thinking about those circles and who might be impacted. Then you need to set up internal or external systems for monitoring press, both in terms of social media and traditional press. The first few hours of the first day of a crisis are vitally important.

Can anything positive come out of a crisis?

While crises do provide an opportunity to demonstrate your mettle as a CMO, that can never be the main objective. The objective needs to be to do the right thing, fix whatever needs to be repaired, address key issues and learn what to do differently next time. It’s essential to debrief after a crisis and think, “What could we have done better?” By doing that, you can prepare a set of guidelines for the next time something similar happens.

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Andrew Longstreth is the Head Writer at Infinite Global, based in New York. He creates custom content for law firms and advises on PR strategies. Andrew can be reached at andrewl@infiniteglobal.com.