No Defense for Jones Day Defense
OP-ED: Jones Day is a storied law firm. But its inability to judge how closely the public is watching, and its tone-deaf response to criticism is a virtual advertisement for those of us who provide strategic communications and reputation management consulting for a living.
By Karen J. Kessler | November 24, 2020
2020 will go down in history for many reasons, not the least is the fraught transition in the White House.
The rise in political activism, the impact of the pandemic and the exploding social justice movement have ignited public pressure for systemic change—and Corporate America has responded by updating mission and core value statements, and heavily promoting them on social media platforms.
The question is, once Human Resources, Communications and C-Suite executives sign off on those changes, will the mission and value statements guide decisions, or are they merely performative?
For those of us in the field of crisis communications, the failure of corporations, nonprofits and others to match words and action has led to a boom market.
Never have more companies been more attuned to how they handle public affairs issues, knowing that failure to live by their high-minded mission and value statements can instantly undermine reputations carefully built over the course of decades. Consumer firms can see markets disappear when a tone-deaf social media post is met with a viral response driven by “cancel culture.”
Now the prominent Jones Day law firm, facing a backlash over their decision to represent President Trump’s false narrative of voter fraud, has become what will be the “counsel cancel” poster child. In a clumsy attempt to address the problem, Jones Day leadership compounded it by breaking fundamental rules of crisis communications.
- Authenticity rules.
If you make a decision to take the client, own that decision. The fact that the company was hired by the Pennsylvania GOP allowed it to claim in a statement, “Jones Day is not representing President Trump or the Republican Party.” But does anyone believe that, when challenging the significant voter plurality for Joe Biden in Pennsylvania, Jones Day was representing an interest other than that of the President? To claim otherwise is a failed attempt to create a distinction without a difference.
- Blaming the media won’t change the narrative.
Claiming, on the Jones Day website, that “media reports are false, and we expect them to be corrected,” buys Jones Day only scorn. Keep expecting and let us know how that works out.
- Know when no one is buying what you are selling.
The legal world and every election authority sought for comment have concluded the lawsuits challenging non-existent voter fraud are frivolous, yet Jones Day persists in referring to them as “important rule-of-law issues.” Even Sarah Palin knew a pig wearing lipstick is still a pig.
- Evaluate reputational harm.
What are the barometers? Well start here: the mocking memes, the fake recruiting videos and extensive coverage in legal media, with snide comments from legal scholars, all call into question the firm leadership’s public statement as well as their commitment to the values they now claim to champion.
- Know your stakeholders.
Corporate America agonized, in the wake of 2020’s challenges, to draft value statements with the right tone. It is facing mounting pressure to put those values into practice and honor them. For Jones Day, failure to look beyond this payday means its clients will feel compelled to seek representation elsewhere. Partners will be receptive to recruiters seeking to lure them to competitor firms. Talented law school graduates will look elsewhere to enter the field and build their careers.
Jones Day is a storied law firm. But its inability to judge how closely the public is watching, and its tone-deaf response to criticism is a virtual advertisement for those of us who provide strategic communications and reputation management consulting for a living.
Karen J. Kessler is founder and president of Evergreen Partners, a New Jersey-based public relations firm specializing in reputation management, crisis communications and litigation support. Follow Karen on Twitter at @KarenKesslerPR and on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/karen-j-kessler-6982649/ .