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How King & Spalding Can Clean Up Its PR Mess

Vivia Chen

May 9, 2011

Fotolia_27813495_XS This much we can all agree on: King & Spalding got itself into an awful pickle by dipping its toes into the controversial Defense of Marriage Act. By now, everybody and his grandmother has an opinion about whether the firm acted properly in agreeing to defend DOMA and then dropping the representation.

Here's a summary of the mess. First, the firm agreed to represent House Republicans in defending DOMA. Then, amid protest by gay rights groups, King & Spalding withdrew from the case, triggering former solicitor general Paul Clement (who brought the case to the firm) to resign from the firm's partnership. Since then, clients like the NRA and Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli have dropped the firm in protest.

The debate about whether King & Spalding did the right thing will probably go on. But the more urgent question is this: What can it do now to restore its reputation?

Bob Witeck, the founder of Witeck-Combs Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm that advises companies on crisis communication, offers some insights. Witek's firm, which has no affiliation with King & Spalding, also advises companies on marketing to the gay and lesbian communities.

King & Spalding seems to have done everything wrong from the get-go. It has managed to tick off everyone of every political stripe. So where should it direct the damage control?
The top priority is to communicate with your clients and the people who work for you that you stand by your policy of inclusion as a guiding principle.  The media will make its own decision about the episode, but you have to be true to your clients and your own brethren about your core beliefs.

So you wouldn't bother to make a case for redemption with the public?
I think the less time talking with the press, the better. [The firm's] clients would probably prefer not to extend this conversation publicly [about the firm's role in DOMA]. 

Do you think the firm should be bringing this matter up with clients privately?
The clients are probably calling them to talk about it. I'd spend time listening to what they have to say, rather than rehashing this thing. You should do most of the listening to get a sense whether this is a big deal or a little deal to the client.

Speaking of clients, what do you make of the speculation that King & Spalding withdrew because of protests from some of its big clients, like Coca-Cola?
I don’t believe that's true. Corporations don't usually weigh in about what clients their law firms are taking on.

King & Spalding's public announcement about withdrawing from the case was short and sweet. Should it have done more to explain its decision?
I think they did a reasonably good job with this concise statement.

What do you make of firm chair Robert Hayes's statement that "that the process used for vetting this engagement was inadequate"?
I would suggest that the firm be a bit clearer that had the firm’s existing vetting procedures been followed, the firm would not have accepted this client. . . . That is a better rationale and more compelling than “Oops, we misstepped, and we are now reversing course because of the blow- back.”

Anything else about the statement that made an impression on you?
The chair took the fall, took ownership of the issue, which were the correct things to do.

Does the firm need to do more to regain the good graces of the LGBT community? Should it be sponsoring more LGBT events or making donations to causes that promote LGBT rights?
That would seem like pandering. King & Spalding already buys tables at LGBT events. They just have to show the love by their actions. 

Will King & Spalding ever fully recover from this fiasco?
They won't be judged by one event. They have a long, established reputation. They shouldn't have to talk about it until the cows come home. Success is when this is out of public debate. I'd keep a low profile. In six months, very few people will pay attention.


Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.

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Photo: Zoe / Fotolia


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Yet another excellent study about a relevant problem Vivia. I particularly like the factors about companies creating faults and one error not being the loss of life of the company. Firms are run by people and companies are obviously eligible to get some things wrong - though good control should create very little faults. Don't we give affiliates the same guidance in efficiency opinions - if you fail, understand from it and shift on?

The debate whether King & Spalding did the right thing, will probably continue. But the most pressing issue is: What can he do now to clear his name?

Yet another great read about a topical issue Vivia. I particularly like the points about firms making mistakes and one mistake not being the death of the firm. Firms are run by people and firms are obviously entitled to make mistakes - though good management should make very little mistakes. Don't we give associates the same advice in performance reviews - if you make a mistake, learn from it and move on?

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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