Message Builders

The scope and focus of legal departments' duties continue to expand as the needs of corporations change. One of the more important trends is the increasingly vital role of the legal department in helping to manage and shape a company's image and reputation. Rather than simply telling management what they can and cannot say, legal often can help shape positive messages.

As a former journalist and former regional counsel for Microsoft Corp., I spent a significant amount of time as a media spokesperson for that company. I learned that rather than being passive during a media crisis, legal departments can help communications staff actively manage the crisis.

In my current position as general counsel for Career Education Corp., I have had the opportunity to shape the relationship between legal and communications to the benefit of our company and its stakeholders.

Our legal department--and the company--now live by three primary rules when it comes to strategic communication: first, balance legal protection for the company with transparency; second, coordinate with corporate communications and outside counsel to ensure that everyone is working with the same messages; and third, ensure that legal and communications remain focused on the customer rather than on functional silos.

Lawyers often feel at odds with communications professionals. The communications team wants to provide appropriate information to the press as quickly as possible after a potentially negative event. Your job is to protect your company from the legal consequences of that event, which likely will require you to hold back certain information. But there is almost always a middle ground. Finding it requires an ongoing partnership between communications and legal so each understands the pressures the other faces. It also requires legal to think quickly and strategically in investigating facts and assessing the issues.

Most of the lawyers I know could benefit from good media training. We may know how to talk to a jury or negotiate a deal, but don't always know how to discipline our communications so we stay on message. Consider signing up the legal department for a communications review the next time the company offers executives media training. It will be well worth the investment. The goal is to ensure that a company's lawyers, who inevitably are key spokespeople, have the same sensitivity to messaging as other trained executives and can effectively carry the company's story.

Setting up regular, joint meetings for legal and communications so they can interact and learn from each other also is important in the development of appropriate messaging. Good lawyers and good communicators must be avid fact-gatherers because both professions share the vulnerability wrought by being "blindsided" by information they never knew was out there. It is crucial for legal to keep corporate communications in the loop.

Working together, communications and legal can be a powerful partnership for any company. Neither can afford to be isolated or inward-looking. The shared responsibility of the two functions is to be constantly focused on the world outside the corporation, so the company can be more effectively positioned to provide enhanced value to all of its stakeholders, particularly its customers and investors.

A company's reputation is clearly one of its most important assets, one that requires discipline to build and diligence to maintain. Without a strong partnership between the legal and communications departments, a company is vulnerable to a variety of external threats that can permanently damage its reputation and result in significant costs. With an enlightened partnership, the legal and communication departments can not only provide more effective protection for the company, but also can increase their value internally by enhancing the organization's long-term viability.

Janice L. Block is senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary for Career Education Corp., an Illinois-based owner of career-focused schools and colleges.

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