Channeling your inner Olivia Pope

What to do when the scandal involves your company or your client

Every week, many of us watch “Scandal's” Olivia Pope handle one crisis after another. Of course, it is sensationalized for television and meant to entertain us, but the fact is, at some point or another, either as in-house or outside counsel, your company or client will find itself in the middle of a scandal of some kind. The scale and scope will vary greatly, but it is nonetheless a significant and important issue that you, as the attorney, will want to be prepared for and be able to provide valuable insight, advice, and counsel. The scandal you face will not necessarily be a legal or business crisis in the traditional sense. In light of the global nature of business, the interconnections between the public and private sectors — and the lightning fast access to and dissemination of information through technological innovation, social media, and the Internet — a political event occurring halfway around the world, a natural disaster, or a seemingly private matter involving an executive, officer or director can trigger a company-wide scandal. 

Preparing a crisis management plan while in the middle of the scandal is not optimal. That is why you hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Prepare in advance of crisis — draft the playbook and identify the “position” individuals will play, outline basic principles for your offensive and defensive strategies, select company spokespersons, establish relationships with a shortlist of crisis management firms, and identify the key team leaders across the various business, legal, marketing, public relations, human resources, and government and investor relations platforms. “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success,” said Alexander Graham Bell. Even if a comprehensive plan is not practical or doable, think proactively and jot down the three most important steps you know must be taken if a crisis hits.     

To be clear, I am no “Olivia Pope” or “Michael Clayton.” My area of expertise is not crisis management, and I am not a law firm “fixer.” But in my 20 years of practicing law in the area of complex commercial litigation, I have represented a mayor and other city officials who were accused of impropriety in the award of city contracts, an insurance carrier in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a pesticide manufacturer whose product was involved in a leak in a rural community, and a product manufacturer involved in one of the largest recalls in history, among many other clients. So, there are aspects of Olivia Pope and Michael Clayton in my practice for certain clients in specific matters.  While some of these matters were local, others were global, and most importantly, each of these examples constituted a crisis for that particular company. 

One of the first steps to channel your “inner Olivia Pope” is to understand that as lawyers, we serve the business. Serving the business may mean defeating the litigation, fighting the regulators, beating back the investigation or winning the trial. Or, it could mean addressing the problem or issues through a business solution and resolving the matter through settlement or other compromise. In either instance, not losing sight of the impact of the crisis on the brand, reputation, customers, workforce and other mission-critical aspects of the business is of utmost importance. What is the endgame? What is the big picture strategy and action plan for coming out of the crisis with brand, reputation, customer, workforce, and other mission-critical aspects of the business intact or at least, impacted as little as possible? What is the recovery plan if the scandal has a temporary or permanent adverse impact? You have to know the endgame as you map out the proposed strategy — a strategy which should be nimble and flexible enough for contingencies and contemplate the various pathways and detours you may need to take to achieve the desired outcome. 

The second step to channel your “inner Olivia Pope” is to identify your team of gladiators. There are experts in the field of crisis management, public relations, and corporate communications strategies who can assist you and the company in answering the questions outlined above and managing the crisis. In addition, you will need a diverse, multidisciplinary team consisting of in-house and outside counsel, subject matter experts, and representatives from the relevant business units. Organization of team members and project management by team leaders are indispensable. To refer back to the earlier sports analogy, everyone needs to know their respective positions to ensure that offensive and defensive strategies are executed properly, and team members are not working at cross-purposes. The members of the team need to know and understand their specific roles and responsibilities to ensure accountability and that they are working as a collaborative and coordinated team.   

The third and final step in this first installment to channel your “inner Olivia Pope“ is to become that voice of reason and calm in the center of the storm.  In every crisis, there is always chaos, and I make it my job to impose order onto that chaos, weed out the noise and distractions, and remain laser-focused on the mission-critical tasks and the proper prioritization of those tasks.  Being able to process, analyze, and organize massive amounts of information quickly requires the ability to know the right questions to ask of the right people in order to learn the most important and critical facts at the center of the crisis as soon as possible.  These attributes are essential when facing a scandal.    

In the second and third installment in this series, I will break down in greater detail each step outlined above, flag the key legal issues and best practices, and examine the unique challenges women face in light of gender stereotypes and “double binds” for women in leadership.

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Cari K. Dawson

Cari K. Dawson is the chair of the Class Action Practice Team at Alston & Bird LLP. She concentrates her practice on complex litigation matters,...

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