One of the first things a good corporate communications exec explains to his or her CEO is that the communications department -- not the legal department -- should direct all important communications to the public.
While this might seem like a no-brainer to those of you who have never worked in a corporate environment, the reality is that it can be a constant battle to protect the communications function's strategic role -- particularly in times of crisis, when the lawyers start to get panicky.
As I've explained before, corporate attorneys are trained to shield themselves and their clients against risk. But sometimes, you have to take on a little risk to succeed in business -- and specifically, in talking to the public.
When a company makes the ultimate PR mistake by saying "No comment," for example, there's usually a risk-averse lawyer, not a PR person, to blame. When Exxon committed one of the worst PR mistakes in history by not sending its CEO immediately to the scene of the Valdez oil spill, lawyers -- not PR people -- were behind the decision.
Now, in our post-modern PR world, cautious companies face even greater risks from attorney-driven PR. That's because corporate legal letters, intended to be private, are increasingly ending up online -- effectively turning your lawyer's most formal (and often snippy) communications into your brand's public persona.
I'm reminded of this by an interesting little online battle between two photo scanning companies, ScanCafe and DigMyPics. DigMyPics has chosen to aggressively attack its competitor, claiming that ScanCafe intentionally downplays the fact that it ships customers' "one-of-kind photos" to India for processing, among other charges.
DigMyPics' PR strategy is one I would never recommend. For one thing, it kind of gives me the same queasy feeling as those "American Owned" signs at roadside motels. And from a marketing standpoint, negative attacks generally hurt both brands involved.
That said, I'm not a fan of ScanCafe's response, either. The response has been to ignore the attacks, even though they pop up on the first page of ScanCafe's Google results and are surely a hot gossip topic in the photo-scanning space. Instead, ScanCafe has taken what it calls the "high road" by making no public statements.
It has, however, sent some pointed legal letters to DigMyPics -- which DigMyPics immediately posted online. This has effectively enabled DigMyPics to frame the dispute and to present itself as the straight-talking defender of the consumer in its battle against ScanCafe, its offshore scanners, and its "lawyer talk."
Here's the lesson for marketers:
In 2007, you must understand that your legal letters are now part of your marketing and PR program, because people will post them online. So while they aren't intended to become part of a public battle, they can and will be used against you.
In the absence of other voices, legal letters become the spokesperson for your organization by default -- which is never good.
A better option would be for ScanCafe to use its CEO blog to address the issues (and non-issues) raised by its competitor. Frankly, I think ScanCafe could turn DigMyPics' arguments around pretty effectively if it tried -- and wouldn't have to lose the "high ground" by simply defending itself.