As the coronavirus (COVID-19) moves closer to becoming a global pandemic, law firms must prepare to handle internal and external communications in the event it affects them or their clients. If your firm has an existing crisis communication plan, it is time to activate your crisis management team. If your firm does not have a crisis plan in place, this outbreak should be the impetus you need to develop one.
One benefit of having or creating a crisis plan to deal with a pandemic is you then have it to reference for other crises. You can revise the core crisis plan to address other scenarios such as natural disasters, cyberattacks, actions by disgruntled employees, and #MeToo-related situations. In 2019, I noted that public relations professionals have been identifying a significant spike in the need for crisis communication plans across all industries. It is no longer a matter of “if” an organization will need a plan; it is a matter of “when.”
The coronavirus outbreak the world is now facing may have expedited this “when.”
Creating and Deploying Your Crisis Communication Plan
As you prepare your crisis communication plan to handle this outbreak, here are factors to consider.
Given the rate at which events are unfolding, your crisis management team must be small and agile. It must be able to operate quickly and take decisive action. This is not the time to spend hours emailing dozens of people to find free time on their calendars. Your team should consist of trusted, high-level firm members with the authority to make decisions, implement them, and communicate on behalf of the firm internally and externally.
Your team should assign someone to monitor a small number of trusted websites from leading health authorities such as the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That team member should regularly update the group on the latest information, including developments that might affect your firm, your employees and your clients.
In this situation, internal communication may be even more important than external communication. Remember that your employees are worried about themselves and their families. They should not have to worry that their firm is not prepared to handle the situation. Regular communications regarding the implementation of the crisis team, along with health, safety and work-from-home protocols, will help alleviate concern and may help keep your team members free from infection.
Maintaining a Respectful Workplace
In uncertain situations, people can become fearful. This can result in individuals or groups of people being treated differently due to race or health status. Firms must combat this by thoroughly educating all employees on the symptoms and transmission of this virus. You need to focus on facts and avoid speculation. This would also be a good time to reinforce any anti-bias policies that your firm has. Encourage everyone to support one another and their communities.
Finally, consider how your firm will handle the following potential situations:
- Office closure. Are you prepared for your lawyers and administrative staff to telecommute? What resources might they need, and can your servers handle the load? If you are a multioffice firm and one office needs to close, can you relocate work and workers, possibly to another office? If the office must remain closed for some time, are you prepared to work remotely for several weeks?
- Office quarantine. Are you prepared to help employees and their families if the need arises to quarantine team members on-site?
- Travel restrictions. Do you have a draft communication in place to send to clients if you must cancel travel and move meetings to a videoconference format? Is your team proficient in the use of videoconferencing technology? Does the firm maintain a subscription to videoconference platforms?
Times of uncertainty, whether caused by a pandemic illness, a natural disaster or any other crisis, can provoke fear. But law firms that have planned ahead to handle any contingency are better equipped to weather the storm.
Crisis Evaluation and Messaging Help
For more help with your crisis communication plan, download your copy of Gina Rubel’s “Crisis Evaluation and Messaging Checklist” and “Key Message Matrix,” excerpted from her book, “Everyday Public Relations for Lawyers,” 2nd Edition. The checklist is free to anyone who subscribes to Attorney at Work.
More Guidelines on Developing a Crisis Communications Plan
In the new edition of her book, public relations and communications specialist Gina Rubel covers everything you need to know about modern public relations — including the key items to include in your firm’s strategic communications plan. New in this edition: a detailed chapter covering the critical aspects of developing your firm’s crisis communications plan. Get Gina’s clear, no-nonsense advice, checklists and templates for promoting yourself, your firm and your clients.
Published by Attorney at Work and available in our bookstore, here.