Silence Not Golden When Law Firms Are Embroiled in High Profile Controversies

The BigLaw firm Hunton & Williams today is taking a larger public relations hit than necessary because it has decided to remain silent in the face of a high profile controversy. In short, it involved WikiLeaks and hackers who exposed some of the firm’s sensitive emails. The full background on the story is covered nicely in the AmLawDaily here.

Instead of saying: “We are looking into this and will get back to you” or “we haven’t seen all the details yet but when we do we’ll have a statement”,  Hunton is hunkering down — at least for today. What’s made it worse for the firm is that two companies embroiled in the controversy have already issued statements, prompting one influential media outlet, Salon.com, to single out Hunton for its refusal to comment.

Silence when called by the media is rarely a good strategy — not good for legal reasons and certainly not good for reputation. As I’ve said for years, that’s because when an institution says “no comment” or it is written that a firm “declined comment”, the court of public opinion will sense that they must be hiding something or that they are guilty of some bad behavior.

Lawyers and law firm management who cling to the Old World thinking that it’s harmful to talk to the media when trouble erupts need to be aware that silence and/or hiding is like pouring oil on a fire today. Just like the world saw in Egypt, you can’t hide negative news when blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube and 24-hour news operations are the new communications reality.

What’s more, by ignoring the media in tough times the firm risks losing its credibility and goodwill with reporters when it  truly needs the media to cover its big success stories. (Think pro bono matters, litigation victories or high stakes transactions that closed as a few examples.)

Many firms also don’t consider that the longer they stay silent, the more they risk inheriting damaging search engine results that will continue to multiply. These are permanent Internet records. So all that resources that a firm might have invested in to improve it’s critical search results will certainly go out the window in a high profile controversy or crisis.

What do you think?