If I was going to trial, I’d hire a lawyer to advise me. And if I faced a PR crisis, I would hire a public relations team expert in crisis communications to advise me.
So why the heck did the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Penn hire lawyers to advise them when they appeared before Congress to discuss antisemitism on campus when they should have had a public relations team instead?
The leaders muddled through their testimony with wishy-washy answers to softball questions. Following the hearing Harvard President Claudine Gay, MIT President Sally Kornbluth and Penn President Elizabeth Magill were under intense scrutiny with Magill resigning her position.
When lawyers get in the way
At many larger organizations, the legal department is heavily involved in all marketing and communications initiatives, for example by requiring every blog post and press release to be vetted by a lawyer.
Since legal people don't usually understand the media themselves (and don't use social media for business in their jobs), they naturally respond by just slapping on controls.
After all, a lawyers’ job is to reduce risks within an organization, so it's temptingly simple to just follow their advice to find ways to duck questions or supply vague generalities.
It’s been reported that the university presidents relied on legal teams to lead the preparation for their Congressional hearing. It seems the primary driver was to limit exposure to legal risk rather than providing clear answers to the questions posed.
When the university presidents offered vague answers about something as serious as antisemitism on campus, they were rightly called out.
Yes, lawyers are important to a business. But so are communications experts. Getting nuances wrong can be costly for organizations, and in the case of these universities it can add up to millions in donations lost.
Disclosure: I wrote this post, but ChatGPT suggested the headline.