Crisis Communications Roadmap for Law Firm Marketers Responding to COVID-19

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I attended LMA's recent Coronavirus Crisis Communications webinar, and boy was I glad I did.

...an in-depth look at what firms should be doing in the face of the COVD-19 crisis, a road map of practical responses

The panelists, Gina Rubel (of Furia Rubel Communicationa), Julie Wall (Balch & Bingham), Charles Edwards (Jackson Spalding), Dave Poston (Poston Communications), and Zach Olsen (Infinite Global), provided an in-depth look at what firms should be doing in the face of the COVD-19 crisis, and in the process sketched out a road map of practical responses for communication with employees, clients, and the media.

I've highlighted below some of the more salient suggestions and ideas that legal marketing and communications professionals can implement immediately to help their firms navigate the uncharted territory of a global pandemic. Obviously, I could not capture everything covered in the webinar, and as such strongly recommend that you listen to the entire recording, (which is also embedded for you to play in full at the bottom this post).

What Are Firms Doing Well, Right Now?

Moderator Jessica Jaramillo kicked off the webinar with a rapid-fire question: What are law firms doing – or should be doing – that is "spot on"? Some answers:

Gina Rubel: Demonstrating empathy in all of the firm's internal communications.

Charles Edwards: Aligning their experts with their clients' most pressing needs.

Zach Olsen: Anticipating questions before issuing communications.

Julie Wall: Looking at ways the firm can support its communities.

Dave Poston: Including marketers when preparing all internal and external communications.

Prepare, Respond, Recover: Where Are We?

Dave Poston pointed out that although the time to prepare for this crisis has passed – firms now need to spring into action – the normal model of crisis communications is "Prepare, Respond, Recover."

We're clearly past the planning phase, but this is still a good model to guide firms as they move into the "Respond" phase and beyond, to plan for and deliver communications with employees, clients, and the media.

"Put yourself in the shoes of clients, and also of your employees..."

Input from the panelists:

  • It's clear which firms had incident response and crisis communications plans in place. They have spokespeople and statements for the media ready to go. You can really see the difference in preparation, and how their work is paying off. (Olsen)
  • Keep an eye on what law.com and Law360 are sharing – these publications have a clear idea of what their readers are most worried about, and that information should help shape your firm's communications. (Rubel)
  • Call: clients are facing information overload. Call and alert them to what you're seeing rather than emailing a blog post or article you've written. It's not only quicker than waiting for marketing to get alerts posted to the website, clients will appreciate the personalized communication. (Wall)
  • Put yourself in the shoes of clients, and also of your employees. Once you've identified what clients need and determined how you can best provide it (and started giving it), remember that good advice for clients is also good advice for the firm. (Edwards)

Anatomy of an Effective Crisis Plan

...deliver all communications to employees before going to clients

Dave Poston led a discussion on the key elements of an effective Crisis Plan. Some important considerations:

  • Have backups for all the roles on the crisis communications team.
  • Figure out how frequently the crisis team is going to meet (Poston has one client that meets twice a day, and another that meets three times every day).
  • A comprehensive crisis communications matrix is critical. It should incorporate all messages to all audiences, the timing of each message – Poston recommends that all communications be delivered to employees before going to clients – and closely track all formal and informal communications channels (including social media and the 'gossip line') so firms can stay ahead of false rumors.

Other valuable recommendations raised by panelists:

  • Keep extensive notes of what's working, what isn't, which communications are approved, what the Managing Partner liked and didn't, etc. Assign this recordkeeping to someone on the team to ensure that you have records for future crises. (Rubel)
  • Build an effective team around people who have a solid track record of getting things done. (Olsen)
  • Be flexible and nimble, able to pivot very quickly, including to scrap the plan if that's necessary. (Wall)
  • A lot of crisis communications plans are heavy on scenarios. Don’t worry about preparing for every possible situation: focus instead on the most likely scenarios that you could face. (Edwards)
  • Build a cross-functional team that can effectively cover fact-gathering, speedy responses, and substantive communications, and includes a strong spokesperson. (Edwards)
  • Train everyone answering the firm's phone in media protocols so they don't inadvertently give the wrong message to journalists who call. (Rubel)
  • Don't stick with a plan that's not working: be prepared to modify it quickly. (Olsen)
  • Take your people through scenario training to raise their comfort level. (Wall)
  • Make sure HR and the firm's GC are part of the crisis communications team. (Rubel)

Be Prepared for Media Questions

...remember that your most important audience is your employees

Julie Wall reminded attendees that all firms will receive inquiries – from the media, clients, internal, government officials, and others – and that they need to pivot quickly and respond to these questions. She gave some examples of questions her firm has received, which include:

  • How is the firm operating in this environment?
  • Are you considering layoffs?
  • How is your team continuing to collaborate while working remotely?
  • What is your firm doing to help your clients and communities during this crisis?

The other panelists weighed in on media inquiries:

  • Remember that your most important audience is your employees. Make sure they hear your answers to these questions first, before the media and even before your clients do. (Edwards)
  • Never answer media questions with "we're not talking to the press." Firms can emerge as leaders in this crisis by answering the tough inquiries with responses they've developed though an ongoing Q&A with their employees. (Poston)
  • Don’t use the term "business as usual" when describing how your firm continues to meet client needs. It's not true – business is UN-usual in the current climate – and it can come off as tone-deaf to the struggles of your employees, clients, and others. (Rubel)
  • While you should never take a "heads in the sand" approach, remember that you're in control of the narrative. You don't have to answer every single question on the media "wish-list." (Olsen)

Universal Guideposts

Charles Edwards then turned to a discussion of key considerations that should inform contact with the media in these unprecedented times. Things that firms – and marketing and communications professionals – should keep in mind in dealings with the media:

  • Don't abandon your values.
  • Only communicate what your audiences need to know, via the same channels as you typically use – that's where your audiences are looking.
  • Stay in your lane: your people are lawyers and communicators, not health experts.
  • Link to the source material, like information from the CDC and health experts, that informs your analysis and actions

Communicating with Critical Audiences

Julie Wall reminded attendees that every firm has three critical audiences, and that employees are at the top of that list. She went through some of the steps her firm has taken to communicate with personnel, which include:

  • A dedicated team that is spearheading daily phone conferences and ongoing communication (through and intranet set up for the crisis).
  • Sharing writ large: from firm solutions for the challenges clients face to the issues individual employees are having in the shift to a "work from home" environment, the people at her firm are in constant communication, sharing information that can be helpful to others in the firm.
  • Transmitting both official public information – from the CDC, for example – as well as internal processes and procedures that keep the business running.

Noteworthy additional observations from panelists:

  • Have communications ready to go for the hardest situations – if someone from the firm gets sick or passes away – so you don't have to waste precious time figuring out what to say. (Rubel)
  • Consider that clients are inundated with information, and that personal phone calls give you a good opportunity to help them sort through it all. They'll appreciate the personal attention, even if all you're doing is to giving them a heads up, for example, that you're sending them a written piece that applies to their specific situation. (Wall)
  • Remember that the media is not the number one priority: don't let them bully you into immediate responses that aren't in the firm's best interest. In fact, if you get your employee and client communications right, your media responses are written too, in a way that ensures consistency across all three channels. Obviously the media can be helpful – communications are a critical part of mitigating risk, and the media can help get the word out – but you should never answer media questions you haven't already answered to your true priority audiences: employees then clients. (Olsen)
  • Think about the key differentiators of your firm, and incorporate them into communications and thought leadership. (Wall)
  • Assume that employees and clients have the same concerns as those expressed in questions from the media. Prepare answers for those audiences first, before you respond to media inquiries. (Olsen)
  • Be thoughtful about the communications you put out during this time. Yes, it's appropriate for firms to talk about issues and developments that aren’t related to COVID-19, but you should hold off on firm news like new office openings which at best will fall on deaf ears and could be perceived as tone-deaf and insensitive. (Rubel)
  • Consider putting out daily briefings for employees and clients that provide both analysis of the situation they're facing, but also your perspectives on developing trends ("here's what we're seeing") and how it should impact them. (Edwards)

Next Steps

The panelists agreed that, although we're currently deep in the "response" phase of the crisis, firms can't stop planning and looking ahead. They must absolutely prepare answers to the "what ifs?" of a number of to-come scenarios, to have communications ready for each of their three audiences that respond to challenging situations, including:

  • How they will respond to employee healthcare issues (paid sick leave, workers comp, etc.).
  • What they will do when employees or key firm leaders get sick.
  • How they plan to reduce costs and expenses, especially if those measures involve attorney or staff layoffs (and the impact of those workforce reductions on client service).
  • What they're doing to minimize business interruptions, including office closings, employees working from home, etc.

Audience Questions

Jessica Jaramillo shared some questions from webinar attendees. Highlights of the panelists' responses:

Question: What should we be communicating above, and what should we stay quiet about?

Answer: The important thing to remember is that you must only communicate about things you know are factually true. Never speculate about rumors. And above all, be honest and transparent in your responses. (Olsen)

Question: How do we stay top of mind without spamming clients? How often are firms sending out advisories, and what's the balance between sharing breaking news and desensitizing clients?

Answer: Be strategic about your communications. Look at analytics and data to determine what clients are reading, and do more of that. You're not in the business of breaking news, you're in the business of providing insight on how the breaking news affects your clients. Engage directly with your audience – ask clients what they want and need – so that you're adding to their knowledge base with information that is relevant to them. (Rubel)

Question: What are some tips to keep internal audiences engaged during remote working?

Answer: Keep the information flowing. Make sure your executive team – and especially the people who are heading up internal communications – meet every day and send out an email to employees. They can also pick up the phone and talk to key employees, too. (Edwards)

Question: Do you have an guidance on business development ideas during this period?

Answer: The best business development during this period of crisis is communicating with clients, employees, and the media. Focus the firm's efforts on guiding clients and on helping them weather this storm will always be the best BD. (Rubel)

To the extent they can, lawyers should try to be more active on LinkedIn – it is a critical source of news and insight for clients now more than ever. And they should be looking at ways to improve their firm and LinkedIn bios, if possible, to show how their experience addresses the needs of clients and potential clients in the current climate. (Wall)

Parting Thoughts

To close out the webinar, Jessica Jaramillo asked each panelist to give their thoughts on how marketing and communications professionals can get through this crisis:

Gina Rubel: Take care of yourself and lead by example.

Charles Edwards: Don't worry about what's not in your control. Figure out what is in your control, and act on that.

Zach Olsen: Take it one day at a time.

Dave Poston: Think about it, but sleep on it.

Julie Wall: Try to approach everything with empathy.

Again, I encourage you to download and watch the complete webinar. Then watch it again. Like me, you'll be glad you did. Watch here:

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[Lance Godard has helped lawyers and law firms articulate their value, engage their readers, and grow their business through compelling content for three decades. Follow his new work on JD Supra. Connect with him on LinkedIn to see how he can help you, your practice group, and your firm upgrade your content and marketing strategy.]

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