Cultivating reputational resilience and communicating authentically during a crisis
January 3, 2024
In their Law Firm Management column for the New York Law Journal, Clay Steward and Kelsey Eidbo of Infinite Global discuss the concept of reputational resilience and emphasize how firms steadfastly building a positive reputation well in advance of any real or perceived threat are most likely to withstand a crisis when it does inevitably emerge.
Every law firm will face some type of reputational threat this year. It’s no longer a matter of if, but rather when. These threats come in various guises, ranging from employees behaving badly in the workplace to intense scrutiny of a controversial client, or from an operational challenge such as a data breach or failed merger, to—as seen most recently in the case of the Israel-Hamas war—pressure from stakeholders to publicly respond to a shocking or ethically-charged global event.
While a growing number of firms are beginning to view reputation management as a worthwhile commitment of time and resources, far too many continue to think of crisis response as something that is, by nature, a reactive practice—a sort of public relations war room that is only convened when a crisis sneaks up on the firm. We’re here to tell you that the firms steadfastly building a positive reputation well in advance of any real or perceived threat are most likely to withstand a crisis when it does inevitably emerge.
For a law firm, strategic reputation management requires more than just being mindful of brand image or successfully manipulating public perception at a critical inflection point. It’s about doing the work and embracing the behaviors that increase the likelihood key internal and external stakeholders will adopt a positive perception of your firm and those who lead it. We refer to this as reputational resilience.
Construct a Strong Foundation Before the Storm Hits
A clear and consistently applied vision and system for reputation management, aligned to business objectives, will help differentiate a firm from its competitors and guide sound decision-making. The firms best prepared for a crisis have systematized the reputation management function and developed cross-departmental accountability. Most larger firms have a communications and media relations team, and most now have risk and compliance professionals analyzing organizational risk, but are these teams collaborating to anticipate, identify and proactively manage reputational risk?
Once you’ve identified who within the firm is charged with focusing on reputational risk and charting a path toward reputational resilience, the question becomes “how do we wish to be perceived?” This is where most of the work lies and, frankly, where many firms lose their way. That’s because it is incredibly challenging to identify a set of values that will inspire and guide everyone within a large organization. But just because this process is hard is not a reason to abandon it. The manner in which a firm’s values are reflected in its actions will determine how it is perceived when the going gets tough.
The key to a good reputation is identifying what you value and prioritizing it, despite how difficult it may be. Law firms today are often preoccupied with what to say under pressure, losing sight of the fact that it is how they behave when not under duress that will largely determine how they will be perceived when thrust into the spotlight. And because of this, they miss golden opportunities to proactively cultivate reputational resilience.
Many firms fail to realize (or conveniently ignore) that their reputation is largely within their control. People will develop their perception of your firm based on the information you proactively put into the world. If stakeholders are misinformed, or your positive behaviors are hidden, people can come to an incorrect conclusion about who you are and what you stand for. Sure, crises are sometimes the result of unforeseen events, but that doesn’t mean that reputation management is a reactive practice. Quite the contrary—reputational resilience is defined by a firm’s s capacity to anticipate and mitigate reputational risk, absorb stress and thrive in new circumstances. And that requires careful planning and adherence to organizational values.
Live Your Values and Make Your Reputation Visible
If you ask the average attorney “what are your firm’s values?” most would fumble for an answer. That’s either because their firm has not articulated a set of values or is failing to utilize a set of established values as an organizational touchstone (beyond perhaps throwing them on the firm’s website). Put simply, if you work at a law firm and you don’t have or aren’t familiar with the firm’s corporate values, there is work to do.
While many business leaders think of values development as the sort of “squishy,” culture-building work that is best left to HR departments and most valuable in recruiting, the firms with the best reputations are the ones whose leaders understand that these values are the navigational compass by which the firm makes hard decisions, evaluates opportunities, addresses challenges and inspires leadership.
The key to surviving any reputational threat is communicating authentically. In this context, authenticity means the alignment of what one thinks, says and does. If you respond during a crisis in a way that reflects the firm’s values and is perceived as authentic, the odds are good that you will survive the crisis without any deep reputation scarring.
No matter what values your firm embraces, it’s imperative to make them visible before a crisis hits. If you value “compassion,” don’t wait until you are accused of a lapse in moral judgement to let the public know about your dynamic pro bono program, philanthropic work and commitments to social justice. If you value “collegiality” or “personal accountability,” don’t wait until an attorney is accused of misconduct to shine a light on the work you have done to build a safe, respectful and collaborative workplace. Build your foundation now. You’ll need it when the weather turns.
Trust Your Foundation in the Eye of the Storm
One of the benefits of having a set of organizational values to guide your decision-making and inform your communications is that you will be less likely to be provoked or respond rashly when faced with a crisis. Just as a football team doesn’t throw out the playbook it’s been practicing all week the moment a Sunday game starts, a business shouldn’t discard its organizational values and communications playbook the moment a crisis makes landfall. Crises are not the time for improvisation and panic.
Regardless of what type of reputation you are trying to build, or what values you set as your organizational bedrock, honesty and transparency will be critical. Nothing torpedoes a firm more quickly than blatant dishonesty and stubborn resistance to candor and transparency. Moreover, if you are trying to project something externally that is not reflected by your internal culture, it will be perceived as inauthentic by internal stakeholders, and that is something that can absolutely derail a firm in a crisis.
After the Storm, Assess the Damage and Build Back Stronger
When the storm recedes, it’s time to assess the damage and learn from it. There is a tendency to want to turn the page and get back to doing what the firm is built to do: serve clients. Resist the urge to move on without reflecting.
When the crisis wanes, the media goes back to covering other things and the tension online dissipates, it’s time to review your crisis response and reinforce your foundation. Ask yourself: Why did the firm respond the way it did? Where within our values is there room for growth? What actions can we take now that will help us better withstand the next crisis? The answers to these questions will bring more organizational clarity.
Managing perception requires organizational self-awareness. This means having tough conversations and acknowledging where you can do better. And being willing to be self-reflective and admit where you’ve failed to uphold your organization’s values. Reputation is a muscle that must be exercised. If you neglect it the moment you are feeling stronger, it will atrophy.
At a bare minimum, following a crisis you’ll want to do a full media and digital audit to determine what tactics you may need to deploy to ensure that the crisis doesn’t linger around the edges of your public profile. Reclaim your keywords, counter negative content with positive and enhance your efforts to make your values visible online. The moment one crisis eases, the work of becoming more reputationally resilient continues in earnest.
Display Courage and Vulnerability
In a crisis, our default mode is agitation, which prompts aggression, defensiveness or avoidance. Just as human brains have a limbic system that governs instinctive responses to stimuli (think “fight or flight”), so too do organizations (and their leaders) often default to aggression or escape when threatened. The instinct is either to push back and attack those who threaten the firm’s reputation or hunker down and refuse to acknowledge the threat and hope it passes. Neither of those approaches are usually advisable.
If, when facing a crisis, firms adhere to their values, communicate clearly and authentically, and amplify the reputational foundation they have cultivated over time, they usually will survive with only minimal damage. In our experience, the final ingredient that helps ensure a relatively smooth transition out of a crisis is a firm’s willingness to display courage and vulnerability. This comes from its leaders. When law firm leaders embrace honesty and humility, and acknowledge fear and uncertainty, yet honor an agreed set of values, internal and external stakeholders feel cared for.
Your firm will face a reputational threat this year. Maybe more than one. Don’t wait until then to start living your values and showing everyone what you stand for.
Reprinted with permission from the January 3 issue of The New York Law Journal. © 2024 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.