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Episode 85: Navigating a Crisis – What Law Firms Should Know with Eden Gillott, President of Gillott Communications

Sharon:   Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guest is Eden Gillott, head of Gillott Communications. She is a strategic communication consultant and specializes in crisis communication. She works with a variety of businesses and has extensive experience working with lawyers and with law firms. Eden, welcome to the program.

Eden:      Great to be here.

Sharon:   We’re so glad to have you. Can you tell us about your career path? Where did you study? What did you study? What led you into law firm marketing because that’s always an interesting question.

Eden:      I grew up surrounded by it and like most parents, my father taught me what he knew and what he knew was crisis PR and damage control. His background is that he was head of the AP’s West Coast News Operations for Business, Economics and Labor Relations. He understood business from a reporter’s point of view. Then he later went on to do PR for a Fortune 100 company and learned about the intricacies of managing optics from a corporate level and as a result, I’ve been the recipient of lessons and examples passed on to me, but of course that didn’t stop me from hitting the books and getting other perspectives. I also studied public relations at NYU as well as crisis communications at Harvard and I found that this combination of all of my life experiences has really blended together that I feel benefits the clients I’m advising through a sticky situation.

Sharon:   Wow, that’s such a great foundation! So how did you start working with lawyers and law firms? How did that come about?

Eden:      The focus for law firms is we find that while there are a lot of businesses and non-profits and individuals that go through a crisis, usually it hits to such a level that a lawyer is involved. So usually, as I say, something bad happens and their first call is to their lawyer. Their second call is either to us or maybe their family, depending on how bad the situation is.

Sharon:   Can you give us some examples of crises that law firms might call you in on?

Eden:      A lot of things that we’ve been seeing—it’s actually surprising because most people don’t realize that a lot of the issues that we handle actually have nothing to do with the media at all and the lawyers are actually handling issues for their clients. It’s all about reassuring at the end, reassuring, communicating with their clients, their employees, the communities and stakeholders. These are all things related to government investigations, recalls, data breaches, unwanted media scrutiny over a wide range of allegations, toxic workplace culture, money gone missing. At the end of the day, it’s all just about communicating whether the media’s involved or not.

Sharon:   Do lawyers sort of resent that you’re involved? What do they think—like don’t call the PR people; we can do it?

Eden:      What we do is we actually become an extension of the legal team. I do not advise on legal strategy. We actually plug into the existing either marketing communications and the lawyers, and we’re aligned with the law firms on doing the communication and strategy portion of the legal representation of their client. So, we find that lawyers really enjoy this presence because we look at it from an optics perspective and trust in their legal process.

Sharon:   Do they trust you? That’s more the question I guess in mind. Do they trust you or do they sort of think—they think as they should as lawyers.

Eden:      Yeah, we actually find that it’s the end client themselves—like it’s either the business or the non-profit that’s going like, “Please, please, please can we not do this” and we’re actually very closely aligned almost all of the time with the attorneys in advising in the same direction. It’s really important to have everyone rowing in the same direction during a crisis.

Sharon:   So, you sort of do as part of your communication and address talking about—let’s call it end user communication. You’re talking about lawyers and public relations people, communications. Let’s communicate and get one message and then go to the client.

Eden:      Yes, the importance of a unified message is really, really strong during a crisis.

Sharon:   Yes, yes, yes. So what do you consider the difference between public relations and crisis communications? Is there a difference?

Eden:      Yes, so when people think of crisis communications—really, it’s when people think about public relations in general, they think about how people want to get their name into the press; they want people to know more of what they’re up to. On the flip side, crisis PR has a lot of different names. Some people call it issues management. Some people call it damage control. Some people call it strategic communications. Whatever it’s called, at the end of the day, it boils down to, how do you manage to communicate bad or potentially bad optics. So, in my case, instead of getting your name into the press, my best successes are the ones that you’ll never hear or read about and if you do read about them or hear about them, you’re like, “Oh, why were they even reporting on that? It kind of seems like small potatoes.”

Sharon:   Wow! I’m sure that makes a lot of people sleep better at night knowing that you’re handling it and that hopefully it’ll just dissipate.

Eden:      Hopefully, it will never see the light of day.

Sharon:   O.K., so that’s great. What about the aspect of crisis management in terms of reacting immediately and getting ahead of the story, let’s say? What’s your advice there? What happens? Many times, it’s a fire drill; like drop everything.

Eden:      It is important to move quickly because the more time you give it, the more things can go sideways or if there’s another side telling their story, they can rush out and tell theirs before you do. But you also want to be careful about not rushing out before you have all of the facts to really give a coherent statement. Sometimes there are very fluid situations or maybe you don’t have any facts as you’d like to have. You still need to communicate as early on as possible and then what you do in those cases, depending on who you’re talking to say, “As the facts come in, I’ll update you as needed.”

Sharon:   So, would you agree—you hear over and over “we have to get ahead of the story.” Is that what you’re saying?

Eden:      Yes, so usually it’s important to get ahead of the story. Oftentimes, we find that people wait until something is so bad that it’s already starting to trickle out. So, I do find it is very important to get in front of the story, especially before the other side starts telling their version of it because of course it’s never going to align with yours and it’s always going to make you to be much worse off.

Sharon:   What about no comment? Does that work today. What does it mean?

Eden:      Sadly, it does not. It used to be a pretty good catchall for no comment. From a legal standpoint and while you still can say something to the effect of no comment, like a big nothing burger where you are still communicating, but you’re giving away details that you might be restricted from saying. The problem with no comment is if you say that, you look and sound guilty, especially if you have a high profile.

Sharon:   Is that what people think if they hear it on TV or read it?

Eden:      Yes, usually we have found that the stakeholders, when they hear that no comment is being issued, they’re like, “Oh, well, what’s being accused of them must be true and they look like they’re just hiding.”

Sharon:   Yes, just from a human perspective, it sounds like, “Yeah, what are you not telling us?” in a sense. What would you say are the top mistakes that law firms make? You’ve talked about a few of them, but if you said “one, two, three of the top mistakes we see lawyers and law firms making, whether it’s on behalf of their clients or for them?”

Eden:      It is either saying no comment, probably number one. Number two is not actually what the law firm is doing, but what the end client is doing, they’re waiting until something gets to the point that it’s so bad. So, if a problem crops up on a Friday, we’ll try to take the entire weekend off and go, “O.K., we’ll just deal with this on a Monday” and this is usually a really big problem because you’re waiting too long. The other is not really getting to what really happened. Again, this is not a law firm’s problem in terms of what they’ve done, but it’s really pulling out all of the skeletons in the closet from the client to make sure that you understand the full picture of everything that’s going on because you don’t want to be sidelined later with facts that just kind of magically pop up at the most inopportune times.

Sharon:   Is there something different that comes up when you work with law firms that are having their own crises, I don’t know, fraud or embezzlement or something that hits the papers versus what you’re trying to tell lawyers who are working with the end user client, let’s say? Is there a difference?

Eden:      Kind of. I mean it’s one of the things that when the issue is actually with the law firm itself, when they’re being accused of something, it’s very hard to represent yourself. It’s kind one of those shocking things where if something happens to a lawyer or a law firm, they’re like, “I don’t understand what’s going on. I need outside help.” I understand that they are attorneys, but usually, when it’s the law firm of the attorney that’s being accused of something, it’s hiring another attorney or somebody who has an outside perspective to advise them. It’s really hard, like for example I could never manage my own crisis. You’re too close to the situation to be objective.

Sharon:   Has COVID been a crisis for law firms?

Eden:      Yeah, so COVID has been rough for law firms as well as their clients. I mean it’s uncertainty and it’s how do you manage uncertainty and how to do you communicate with—for a law firm, it’s how do you communicate to your clients and how do you communicate to all your employees about whether or not they’re coming in. The past year has been really tough on a lot of people because they want to know more, and people want to have answers and sometimes you don’t have those answers.

Sharon:   Have law firms or firms in general waited too long to communicate about COVID or is it something that’s created its own crisis?

Eden:      Usually it’s not so much—well, if it has something to do with financials and attorneys’ pay, that has—I’ve seen some headlines in the papers about that.

Sharon:   A couple of examples—crisis communication as we’ve talked about is such an interesting area. Can you give us some examples of successes, and I presume that you can’t mention names?

Eden:      Yes, so everything we do is bound by very strict confidentiality rules, but some examples of things that we see are data breaches and recalls. Really anything in the education space or anything having to do with children or the elderly, healthcare. We see a lot of the issues that crop up and it’s usually the same sort of story of something bad happens; they’re trying to figure out what all the facts are and how do you communicate with your customers, donors, investors? There are certain commonalities. Each crisis is unique. There are commonalities that pop up again and again.

Sharon:   What about having a crisis ready in advance? Companies are always counseled to do that, but I don’t know how many do that.

Eden:      Not as many as one would like. I’ve actually found that a lot of my friends that are more proactive about things, that see something kind of bubbling up in the future and this quick call either to the attorneys or to us, everyone involved, and going, “Hey, I see this. It seems kind of fishy. Like if this were to come up, what would be the best way to put us in a position now that would be stronger when it does happen in the future? Those are the people that usually—they never really see a true crisis as some people would describe. It’s just kind of like, “Oh, this is a tiny, little bump road, but we’ll get past it,” because they have been prepared.

Sharon:   Yeah, I think it makes a lot of sense. It’s just everybody’s running around and it’s hard to stop and say, “O.K., let’s sit down and talk about a crisis plan.  Who’s going to do what?” It makes a lot of sense and I’m sure it’s helpful when a crisis does come up, more than helpful, but at least everybody knows what they’re going to do.

Eden:      Well, speaking of everyone knowing what they should be doing, one of the things that we see a lot—and it’s actually really surprising—is that people don’t have a crisis team or think about the people that would need to be involved, or I’ve actually also seen people do have a crisis and someone had to set it up, but hasn’t communicated with the rest of the team that they are on the team. So, it’s really important, yes, to your point, is having a team set up and also to let everyone know who’s on the team and also understanding what’s the best way to communicate with them. Some people are better on the phone versus e-mail and especially with COVID, what is the best way to reach people? Like do you have cell phone numbers for everyone?

Sharon:   That seems like a real basic thing. At least put your team together and let everybody know. That’s the best way to communicate, yes, yes, yes. So, what about privilege? Is there only privilege if you’re working with a lawyer? Like what if the lawyer says you’ve got to call my client and talk to him directly? Is it privilege or when is it privilege and when is there not? How does that work?

Eden:      So, an attorney should be present on all e-mails—well, first be careful what you put into writing, but the attorney should be on every single e-mail. They should be on all the calls. It’s also important in terms of advising the end client to have both us and the attorney so that they can see that we are a uniform team and then it’s not a case of mom said this; dad said this.

Sharon:   But does that automatically privilege if the lawyers on every e-mail, on every call?  How does that—

Eden:      It doesn’t automatically create privilege. So, our engagement letters are actually—the client is actually the attorney or the law firm themselves and that’s what starts the basic framework of it, but in order to maintain privilege, you do have to be present for all the communications.

Sharon:   Can you give me an estimate of what percentage of the work you do is through a law firm versus the client calls you directly and just says, “We have a crisis. I saw you on the web” or something; I don’t know?

Eden:      I can count on one hand the amount of—and this is over decades of clients that my father and I have handled—only a handful that I can count on one hand had been not through an attorney because if somebody comes to us and they don’t have legal representation, we refer somebody to them because as I was saying, usually the issues that they’re going through are so severe that they really do need legal counsel.  As much as it might be a bad optics situation, they need legal counsel.

Sharon:   O.K., that’s interesting. So, where do you want to take your business from here? I mean you’re working; you’re growing; you’ve really developed a name when it comes to crisis communication. Where do you want to take the business from here?

Eden:      I love where we’ve been going. I’m just continuing on the journey. I don’t think that I’m going to be retiring anytime soon. I really do love working with law firms and the attorneys and managing their clients’ crises. It’s been really fun and exciting.

Sharon:   Well, you and I have talked about the fact that—I know that you really—not all of us enjoy crisis communications. It’s not something I like—let’s call it regular PR. What do you see as the difference?  Number one, what do you see as the difference between what you do and regular PR? You alluded to it a while ago about we are trying to get visibility, but what about working with other PR professionals and partnering with them? I know we’ve called you in several times. How does that work for you?

Eden:      I’ve found that it’s actually really useful to work with the existing PR firm or regular PR, as you were saying, in the case of a crisis because a lot of times, we want to be working behind the scenes and so if they have media contacts, if the media’s already working with you for example and going, “Hey, what’s the story on this? What’s the story on this,” the last thing you want to do is then go, “Oh, hey, this isn’t really a big deal, but here go talk to Eden” because one quick Google and it’s like, “Oh, you’re hiring a crisis manager. Something must seriously be going on.” What we do is we work on the strategy along with everyone and we give you the words, like Cyrano de Bergerac, that you can use and give on behalf of the client so that it doesn’t reach that level of, “Hey, there’s this extra firm that’s going off and handling things. There must be something going on,” and reporters start to dig more.

Sharon:   How is it then that, let’s say that a firm has a public relations firm or a marketing firm and then there’s something that comes along that’s a crisis, you’re on the frontlines then. You’re talking about the fact that you don’t want the press or whatever to know that you have a crisis management firm. Are you usually behind the scenes then?

Eden:      I am on the frontlines, but also behind the scenes at the same time, so I am on all of the high-level calls, trying to figure out what the facts are, but I am usually not on any—hopefully not any e-mails, although we did have a client recently that one of the people told the reporter like, “Oh hey, you should just talk to this firm” and I was like, “Oh, no, no,” but that’s a whole extra side story of that person was just trying to bring the organization down to the ground and I think he did a pretty good job.

Sharon:   So, you’re really partnering with the firm’s marketing or public relations firm.

Eden:      Yeah, we don’t come in and take over and say, “My way or the highway.” It is, all right, guys, we are in a bad situation. What is this best plan for how we’re all going to work together to get out of this?”

Sharon:   And do you find that the lawyer—I’m not couching it in a bad sense—I mean somebody like—the lawyer usually drives things in many ways. Do you find that they really want to drive this in terms of saying, “No, I don’t want to say that?”

Eden:      We do definitely work together. It’s not like everything that comes out of my mouth is going to be gold and that’s the exact thing that gets used. It is really going through and saying, “Hey, this is ideally what we would like to say based on the facts that we have so far” and then we ask the attorneys, “From a legal perspective, is this strong enough? Is what we’ve put in here going to get the end client into any trouble? We want to make sure that we’re all aligned. We don’t want to get any into any legal trouble whatsoever.

Sharon:   What’s the line that you cross or a firm crosses in terms of “My gosh, we’d better talk to a crisis communications person or consultant or firm” as opposed to just, “We’ll manage it or whatever?” Is there a line that’s—

Eden:      I find that the line that usually I see is that people have hit, the end client or the company or the non-profit has usually a level like, “Oh my goodness, I have no idea what to do.” I don’t want to say they’ve completely given up, but they are so frazzled that they can’t get things done. They’re completely lost at sea. That’s usually the line that we see with that. We also see it at, “We thought we had it under control. We tried to manage it ourselves and then we actually ended up creating a bigger problem for ourselves.”

Sharon:   And what about working with a client’s own internal and marketing? Do you find resistance? How do you work? Do you partner with them?

Eden:      It depends. Usually, they’re actually quite happy that somebody else is going take over the crisis because, as you were saying, crisis is fascinating, but it’s not for you. I guess because I’ve grown up around it and been surrounded by it for so long, it’s my jam. It’s my favorite. Not that I want people to be getting into trouble, but I love problem solving. When somebody comes to me with a crisis, I just see it as one really big puzzle that I then get to figure out how all the pieces get to go together.

Sharon:   Are you then sort of inserting yourself into the marketing PR firm or how is that working?

Eden:      I don’t see it as inserting myself into it. I’m like an add-on. It’s like when we all come together like the transformers, like a really big robot.

Sharon:   It sounds great. Last question: what else should we know about crisis management or managing crisis besides figuring out something to say such as no comment or something?

Eden:      The one thing is the importance of a unified message. There are going to be different stakeholders that are going to have different questions, different interests because everyone always looks at it from the perspective of, how does this affect me. It is important to make sure that while you do give everyone—you do explain to people in terms that would be applicable to what’s going on, you do want to have like one single set of facts that you’re working from because when the stories start to change, the people that are listening to you, your various audiences are going to go, “Oh, well, if you deceived me about this one thing, what else are you hiding?”

Sharon:   Right, O.K., that’s very good advice. Eden, thank you so much for being with us today.  This is really great, and I hope that our audience has limited crises or no crises, but at least we have a better understanding of handling them. Thank you so much.

Eden:      Thanks for having me.


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