FBI Director James Comey, who was abruptly fired by President Trump last week, was the latest high-profile departure in the Trump administration, joining Michael Flynn, Sally Yates and others who have also been publicly dismissed by Trump.
While Comey was certainly not the first and won’t be the last to be fired in this administration, his departure was notable for its abrupt nature (contrasting to the drawn-out firing of Michael Flynn earlier this year) and the haphazard way it was handled by the White House communications staff. Dealing with the fallout from the conflicting stories he and his aides have told about Comey’s firing, President Trump even took to Twitter a few days after the initial announcement and threatened to cancel press briefings.
Law firms may not handle a departure as controversial as James Comey, but there are still basic rules on how to handle law firm departures that every firm should keep in mind. Whether the attorney departure is planned weeks in advance or evolves quickly in a matter of hours or days, law firm management needs to be prepared to handle the news, and convey it clearly and consistently to staff, clients and the media.
Have a Plan
The image painted by the media of Sean Spicer “hiding in the bushes” to avoid reporters is pretty awful and is certainly one that your firm will not want to replicate when media queries about your departures come in. News reports after the Comey firing said that Spicer and his team were not informed in advance. This gave them little time to come up with a game plan of how to handle and address the news, probably spurring the impromptu staff meeting near, not in, the bushes outside the White House.
With a law firm departure announcement, firm management may have been discussing layoffs for weeks and have key message points already laid out. Or perhaps a key rainmaker abruptly walks out and joins a new law firm, leaving little time for the original firm’s communicators and leadership to think about how to convey the news.
In any case, to get ahead of the story and give your firm the opportunity to tell it, rather than have others tell it for you, the first step is always to put together a communications plan, which will include addressing these questions:
- What are the details of the situation I need to convey?
- Who needs to be told about this news? When do they need to know?
- Does the firm have a statement for media that effectively conveys a clear and non-negative message about the situation?
- Who at the firm should convey this message to media?
- How will the firm handle incoming questions about the news? Who is best-equipped to address those?
Get on the Same Page
One of the most confusing aspects of Comey’s public firing, and the public firings of Michael Flynn and Sally Yates before him, is that President Trump, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway and others conveyed different messages about the reasons behind the departures. That gave the media an easy opportunity to focus on the discrepancies in what they said, rather than the message. The reasons behind the firings also kept changing, so statements right after the initial news broke morphed into other reasons later on.
The lessons here? Get on the same page: Make sure everyone has the story straight and that it doesn’t need to change. Try to limit the representative to one spokesperson, if possible. When everyone has their own spin and perspective, the messages can be conflicting, and it gives the media reason to compare one message to another. With one clear, unified and consistent message, the media is more likely to focus on the message, rather than how or by whom it was delivered.
Be Prepared to Back Up Your Story
Much of the Comey firing drama centered around the changing narrative that the White House put out there, which wasn’t supported by earlier statements that Trump made about Comey or the Russia investigation. In fact, earlier statements and tweets made by Trump were brought up by reporters looking to refute some of the “new” narratives by White House staff that began surfacing.
What this means for law firms is that the communicators tasked with speaking to the media about departures must be prepared to back up their claims with facts and make sure the facts already out there fit into the narrative they are telling. Same goes for communicating with clients and internally at the firm.
For example, if someone (or a group) left the firm because their practice did not fit with the strategic direction of the firm, that has to be explained and backed up with data or other relevant information. If it makes sense, reporters will appreciate your taking the time to explain the reasoning behind the news.
If there are layoffs with good reasons behind them, the firm should find a way to communicate that. Negative stories about law firm developments often appear when the firm was not contacted or refused to be in the story, or when the firm’s messages fall flat.
As for internal and client communication, if firm leadership doesn’t communicate the story effectively, the rumor mill will get to work. Remember: If your message is based on nothing, it is just spin, but if you have facts to back up your claim, then you are armed and ready to face the media.