Legal Consultant Limelight: Zach Olsen

Zach Olsen’s work centers around aiding people in crisis. He advises prominent public and private companies through data breaches, assesses and alleviates reputational risk, and aids entities navigating active litigation. His mission is singular: To guide individuals and corporations through emergencies and restore calm.

Sounds a lot like being a lawyer.

Unlike a lawyer, however, his forum is not behind the closed doors of courtrooms, but in the public eye of the media. As President of noted communications firm Infinite Global, Olsen heads up the firm’s San Francisco office and its crisis response and reputation management group. He is the words man in a crisis, giving strategic voice to his clients in the court of public opinion.

Though his practice isn’t in the law, lawyers and law firms are a constant in Olsen’s work. He and his team operate in tandem with a client’s legal counsel, crafting a message that is, in the event of active litigation, successful in both the justice system and the media.

It's the human element of the work that speaks most to Olsen. For all the prestige of his client base and nuance and intricacy of their communications needs, they are people seeking counsel during some of the most trying moments of their careers. Along with knowledge of the legal industry, empathy is the key to Olsen’s success. He says of his clients, “You can see it on their faces when they know that they have somebody that can help them figure out what to say, who to say it to, and in what forum. That’s just a huge relief for them, and that's very rewarding for me.”

Not only does Olsen regularly advise clients through media relations during active litigation, but many of the firm’s clients are law firms themselves, seeking communications experts during mergers and other firm changes.

Olsen has been a member of the Lawdragon 100 Leading Legal Consultants and Strategists for the last five years running.

Lawdragon: Tell me about your early days in communications. How did you pick this as a career?

Zach Olsen: I think it picked me, actually. I was a sociology major in college, so I graduated with zero job prospects. I was lucky enough to meet my current partner, Jamie Diaferia, who hired me without any experience whatsoever. He showed me the ropes and invested in me.

I was really fortunate to meet Jamie and find this company in its very early stages. I had wanted to go to law school, and finding an opportunity where I could blend the work I wanted to do in sociology with the law ended up being a really good fit for me.

LD: How have you seen the firm grow and change since you started?

ZO: It’s been crazy. I started in 2006, so I've been with the company more than 17 years now, and we've evolved from a startup to a very successful mid-size communications firm.

It's been a lot of trial and error and a lot of getting lucky in picking the right people to help grow the company. We were very fortunate in that we found people that cared about the company and wanted to help us find people with similar beliefs, attitudes and morals. We invested in them, and they invested in us. It's that foundation of talent that's helped us get to where we are today.

People are relying on us to help them through difficult situations.

LD: How would you define those beliefs?

ZO: It’s about being human beings and treating each other with respect, empathy and care. It’s about investing not in us as individuals, but in each other and helping each other grow.

Our team cares so much about the work they do and about the clients. People take the job very personally and seriously and want to succeed on behalf of each other and the clients.

LD: Outside of the team, what sets your firm apart from other communications firms?

ZO: We have a reputation for knowing how to work with lawyers, law firms and professional services firms broadly.

LD: Which is unique.

ZO: I think it is unique. We’ve been working with lawyers and law firms for more than two decades and we know the ins and outs of how they think, how they work and what works for them.

We are also willing to take chances. In the past five years, especially, we've grown out our capabilities to provide our clients what they need in terms of digital marketing, new media and video. As our clients have grown more sophisticated with respect to how they talk about themselves and their businesses, we have as well.

It’s not without hiccups. We've had to be willing to make mistakes and pivot. I think that ability to be flexible and take chances has helped us be successful.

LD: Going back to your early career, what matters impacted you and let you know you were in the right line of work?

ZO: When I was about a year in, we had Dewey & LeBoeuf as a client during their implosion. That was a feet-to-the-fire, intense experience from a communications perspective – especially for me, a guy that didn't really know what he was doing.

I wasn't working on it by myself, but being able to see the impact that communications could have on a very serious situation – how it could go well and how it could be a detriment to the firm if it wasn't pulled off properly – was really instructive. It made a huge impression on me as far as the power of the job and how important it is to get it right. It made me realize how much people are relying on us to help them through difficult situations.

Another early matter that comes to mind is working on the merger of Cooley and Kronish Lieb. Cooley was a big client of ours, and we helped them prepare for and roll out all of the communications around their merger.

That was a similarly intense experience, and I got to see from beginning to end the process of preparing for a really important event – shaping the communications and the messaging around it, working on the rollout and helping people see why the merger was a good thing. Again, I got a peek behind the curtain as to why and how this could be such an important job. That’s what got me hooked.

There’s a huge therapeutic component to the work that I do on the crisis communications side – helping people feel like everything's going to be okay.

LD: That sounds exciting. What matters are keeping you busy these days?

ZO: About half of my time is spent on crisis and litigation PR. Recently, we’ve been doing a lot of data breach incident response. So, helping companies – not just law firms, but helping any sort of company, public or private – navigate ransomware attacks and talk about the impact to their employees, customers and stakeholders.

LD: What kinds of companies are you working with in that space?

ZO: We're hired by professional services firms on behalf of universities, FinTech companies, healthcare companies – anywhere that's holding private health, financial or personal information. Those are the ones getting attacked. A lot of HIPAA-protected information, for example, is getting leaked on the dark web.

LD: How recently did this start ramping up as a key area of focus?

ZO: It's been about seven years now. We've been doing data breach response work pretty aggressively.

It’s a very good niche for us. Some of our bigger competitors do this work, as well, but I think we're the best because we know how to work with lawyers in this very nuanced practice. Knowing how to talk about matters like these in a way that minimizes litigation risk and harm to the brand is important.

LD: Can you give me an example of a recent project in that area?

ZO: We recently worked on behalf of a university that experienced a ransomware attack on the servers that held their students’ sensitive information.

While that wasn't unique in and of itself, the university administration was in the middle of a contract negotiation with their faculty and faculty union, and the faculty union members were feeding information to the media about the ransomware attack in an effort to make the administration look bad. So, that was a very interesting and complicated communications challenge.

LD: I can imagine. What are some of the key lessons you learned?

ZO: You never know who you can trust. And, certainly, that anything you say to people who are "internal" to your organization can end up external. You have to know that whatever you say, even if it's within the confines of your business or organization, could end up in the media.

LD: What other pieces of advice to you give lawyers and other clients in terms of interfacing with the media?

ZO: The lawyers, for the most part, are pretty good at talking to the media. Certainly, the litigators have a gift for that, as you can imagine.

If anything, sticking to the script is probably the number one advice we give to folks. Make sure you go into an interview with your three key messages that you want to get across, and make sure you have quotable sound bites, so you can make it easy on the reporter to quote you on that subject. Be prepared for difficult questions and know how to bridge away from those and back into something that you want to talk about.

When I was about a year in, we had Dewey & LeBoeuf as a client during their implosion. That was a feet-to-the-fire, intense experience.

LD: How can lawyers stand out through their communications efforts?

ZO: Pick your lane and stick to it. Develop a brand around a certain area of expertise or a certain industry.

We also really try to push people to stand out by being human, whether it's on LinkedIn or in a video or a blog. There are probably a thousand people who can do the same job. Figuring out a way to connect with clients and potential clients in a way that seems real and personable can help you generate goodwill and show people who you are and what you care about.

LD: So, about half of your time is spent in crisis communications. What's the other half of your time?

ZO: About 25 percent of it is managing the business. My partner I mentioned, Jamie Diaferia, is our CEO, and our COO, Issy Podda, is based in London. The three of us spend a good bit of time making sure the business is being managed properly – that we're setting our strategic goals, meeting them, finding new and creative ways to generate revenue and hit our targets, looking at our staffing and retention numbers and basically keeping the business moving forward.

Then there's also mentoring our staff. I try to spend time with everybody to help them figure out where they're headed and what kind of skills they need to develop to get to the next level. I like to be a sounding board for them as they’re figuring out how to address challenges and opportunities as they grow in their careers.

LD: What do you enjoy about centering your communications practice around litigation?

ZO: Lawyers are smart people, so they are as good at their jobs as I am at mine. When I go into a new project, I can be pretty sure the person working alongside me on the legal team is going to know what they're doing. We're going to have some symbiosis. It's going to be collaborative, and we have the opportunity to get creative together. So, between us, we can do good work for our clients. 

LD: Speaking of your clients, you are guiding them through major crises. How do you help put them at ease during those stressful times?

ZO: That’s one of the best parts of my job, which may have something to do with my interest in sociology early on. There’s a huge therapeutic component to the work that I do on the crisis communications side – helping people feel like everything's going to be okay.

LD: How do you do that?

ZO: Being responsive, thoughtful and able to have the emotional intelligence to understand what people need in the moment.

Oftentimes the people I’m working with are C-suite execs, who, while they are very smart and accomplished people, are not necessarily experts in communications. Oftentimes, it's the worst weeks of their lives. They've spent their entire careers building a business, and they're worried that it might fall apart in front of their eyes. Having to say something, especially when it’s about something that's not good, is panic-inducing. If they feel they have someone like me on their side who knows how to do that and can help them do that in the best way possible, that relieves so much stress and anxiety from their lives.

LD: That’s wonderful. So, we touched on data breaches – what other trends are you seeing emerging?

ZO: Everybody's stressed about AI.

It's going to be interesting to see how the next year or so plays out and how people respond to the threats to their intellectual property, their businesses and their reputations. Trying to figure out what's real and what's not is going to be a huge problem for everyone, but probably an opportunity for us, as well, if we can figure out how to get a toehold in there. An AI crisis is a crisis just like any other. You have a problem that you need to figure out how to communicate with people about.

We also need to figure out how to incorporate AI into our work, if there are ways that we can use it productively on behalf of our clients or our firm in a way that is sensitive to the fact that some of the information we have is confidential.

LD: Looking outside of work, what do you like to do for fun?

ZO: I'm an avid skier and mountain biker. Living near Lake Tahoe, I spend a lot of time outside with my family – boating, hiking, biking and bear-spotting.