CHECK YOU public relations skills, bro.
Former Dewey and current Winston partner Adam Kaiser, in my opinion, needs lessons in public relations. I don’t even need to review with you who I am talking about. If you’re reading this on ATL, you already know Adam Kaiser. You also know what he is alleged to have done, and how he responded to a single comment posted on this site.
You and I know all of this information because of Adam Kaiser’s ill-timed attempts to quash the use of his name by an anonymous commenter. His poorly conceived, heat-of-the-moment demands that his name be removed from the site ultimately resulted in the reverse effect; everyone knows his name, and what he is alleged to have done. And his name, while removed from the single comment, has now been repeated over and over and over. Adam Kaiser.
The saying goes that any publicity is good publicity. I argue that unwanted publicity that could damage a career or a firm’s reputation is far from “good.” Even if Adam Kaiser thought he was doing the right thing by sticking up for himself against an anonymous comment, he effectively screwed the pooch.
What should he have done instead?
He should have cooled off, called the marketing or PR department at his firm, and asked for help. Bottom line is that he should have consulted someone before blasting David Lat with silly demands and specious claims of “damage.”
Public relations crises are all but inevitable. I work for a high-profile company. We have tens of billions in revenue. We have deep pockets, so to speak. We are often a target of negativity, or unsupported rants. It comes with the territory. But we also have a PR department tasked with protecting our marks, and our reputation. That department also handles responses to bad press or negative images.
If you are in a small law department you probably don’t have access to the support system that I do. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should run the gauntlet on your own when some anonymous commenter calls you out on the internet, or when your product causes caustic burns when placed directly in the eye, or when your company has been hacked and 6.5 million passwords are released. All three have happened within the last few days, and all three have had different responses.
I’ve already discussed what a debacle Adam Kaiser has caused for himself. Let’s move on to the caustic eye burns. A company markets a contact lens cleaner that is part hydrogen peroxide. They have warning labels on their packaging, and have worked with the FDA to ensure that contact lens wearers don’t put the stuff directly into their eyes. But, some folks still do.
A few hundred out of the millions of contact lens wearers have caused themselves injury. And today, a small doctor’s advocacy group is getting press by badmouthing the manufacturer. How has the company responded? By quickly offering information to the public reaffirming that this product is not to be placed into eyes directly. They’ve also stated that they will continue to diligently assess how to market the product properly so that folks who can’t read or see bright red warning bands don’t become injured.
The third instance, which is allegedly ongoing, involves the release of millions of passwords from a social/business oriented linkage site. If true, this is a concern to millions of people, me included. But on the home page of the site, there is no warning whatsoever that there may be a problem. Interestingly, the site’s own news page links to numerous stories about the breach. Now, while you try to wrap your head around why on Earth a site that may or may not have suffered such a breach would do nothing to inform its members, while allowing news stories on its own page to inform the members — this reminds me of the JetBlue plane with wheel trouble that was being shown on the seat-back televisions of the very plane in distress — let me posit a few steps you can take to get ahead of PR issues before they arise.
First, have a plan. Assure yourself upon taking the job that something is going to blow up at some time in the future. Know what you’ll do and who to call when the event occurs.
Upon the event occurring, take a breath. Assess what real damage has been done (or might be done) by the situation at hand. I would leave a single-sentence comment alone, unless it stated I had murdered a puppy and filmed the act. I might have to respond to that one, or have someone assist me in responding in a measured tone. On the other end of the spectrum, if a technician for our company was alleged to have sexually assaulted an underage person while on the job, I would follow the plan: engage our PR, corporate security, and anyone else in a need-to-know position as soon as possible, and let the pros handle the situation.
My point is this: desperate times call for decisive measures. I am quite certain that the folks responsible for Winston & Strawn’s PR have been closely monitoring the fallout from Kaiser’s meltdown, and are strategizing how and when to respond, if at all. The same should be the strategy of any company facing a PR blow-up. Likewise, if you are in a small department, remember that just because you are put in a response mode does not mean that you have to be defensive. Plan ahead, keep calm, and stick to the plan, and chances are you’ll appear more like the eye solution issue than the hacked website.
And under no circumstances should you interrupt Lat when he’s at a dinner party.
After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.