As more countries report cases of the coronavirus (or COVID-19), employers around the world have been asked to educate their workforces on how to prevent the spread of the virus.
Today in the elevator of my apartment building in New York City, I saw a neighbor wearing a hospital mask while sorting through his mail, acting just like it was a normal day. I tried to purchase hand sanitizer online and in person, with no luck.
And I recently received an email from a press outlet asking the following questions regarding the coronavirus:
- What new policies have been implemented in offices overseas, and how is your firm preparing U.S. offices for the potential impact of COVID19?
- How will decisions to temporarily close offices be made?
- Any changes in travel policies and client meeting protocol?
- Is technology helping firms prepare for the virus?
It got me thinking about that some law firms – especially small- and mid-size firms – may not have an Infectious-Disease/Pandemic Management plan in place yet, and they simply can't afford not to as this virus continues to spread.
...every firm should have a disaster plan in place...
Whether you are a big or small firm, and whether you have offices overseas or not, every firm should have a disaster plan in place for the coronavirus and other types of health crises as well as natural disasters. Business continuity is of the utmost importance as is the well-being of your employees and clients, and the confidence that your clients have in your abilities despite a crisis.
First, Take Care of Your Employees
Your employees should feel like they're in good hands with management and that there is genuine concern for the well-being of everyone. The most important message to communicate internally is that they should stay home from work when they are sick and telecommute if necessary.
Firms should consider making work travel optional, keep track of employees’ vacation locations (by asking them to voluntarily provide this information), ensure there is ample access to sanitizing and antibacterial cleaning products, and use information only from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in communications.
At time of writing, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued travel notices advising that precautions be taken when traveling to Hong Kong, Iran, and Italy, due to coronavirus outbreaks in these countries. The CDC also issued travel precautions for Japan and South Korea, including postponing nonessential travel for older adults and those with chronic medical conditions.
Employees are among your most important considerations, because every employee is a representative and crisis manager for your organization, whether you want them to be or not. It’s your firm’s job to ensure that they receive the messages you want them to communicate to others.
Be sure to communicate frequently to your employees to reassure them and provide them with reliable information.
Establish notification systems that will enable you to rapidly reach your employees if there’s an interruption in business. Make sure you have appropriate supplies (prepare ahead), make arrangements for your employees to work remotely if necessary and develop a plan for how to run your local businesses if you need to temporarily close overseas offices.
Ensure that those who answer the phones in each of your offices are well versed in what your company wants to say regarding the coronavirus, if asked by a client or another interested party. You can prepare a statement for them to read or have those calls directed to someone such as your PR leader or firm administrator.
Although this is common sense, it’s important to communicate the steps that employees can take to avoid getting sick.
Consider putting a quick tips document together and emailing it to employees as well as print up flyers with the information. Tips should include cleaning hands often by washing them with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and covering the mouth and nose with a tissue or sleeve—not your hands—when coughing or sneezing. Education and communication on best practices for not getting sick are crucial during this time and also as this has been a particularly harsh flu season.
Create/Revise Your Infectious-Disease/Pandemic Management Plan
Planning for how your company can continue to operate with a reduced workforce and minimal disruption is crucial to being able to effectively deal with a crisis.
Plan how your company can continue to operate with a reduced workforce...
In terms of your Infectious-Disease/Pandemic Management plan, work with firm leaders and a trusted PR advisor to develop a detailed action plan for the continuity of operations, internal and external communication, client communication, technology, human resources, benefits, travel, matter management and office support during a potential crisis such as the coronavirus, and assemble a trusted team with clear outlined roles and responsibilities.
Your internal crisis team should be small in size and consist of senior administrative leaders who oversee key areas (Information Technology, Human Resources, Administration and Public Relations) as well as lawyers, including your managing partner, a few other partners with subject-specific experience, your general counsel (if you have one), as well as your internal PR leader. If your in-house PR team does not have sufficient crisis communications expertise, you may want to retain an agency or independent consultant that specializes in this area.
When necessary, use social media and your web site to post messages about the firm’s position and actions on the virus, including any closed offices and how to reach those lawyers (and the office especially by mail). Ensure mail is being forwarded to a secure location and checked frequently – you don’t want to forget about the checks and bills that are coming in.
While employers can take commonsense steps to prevent the spread of the virus, such as issuing travel restrictions, or more-controversial steps such as telling people to stay away from work during the 14-day incubation period if they are returning from regions with high infection rates, they might not be enough to prevent the spread of the disease. Employers in the U.S. should review their infectious-disease management plans. If they don't have these plans, now is the time to create them. Employers not only have to deal with the current outbreak, but think about the fact that the virus may occur again next year.
According to SHRM, an effective pandemic plan addresses such topics as:
- Workplace safety precautions
- Employee travel restrictions
- Provisions for stranded travelers unable to return home
- Mandatory medical check-ups, vaccinations or medication
- Mandatory reporting of exposure, such as employees reporting to employers and employers reporting to public health authorities
- Employee quarantine or isolation
- Facility shutdowns
Educate Your Clients
On the marketing front, here's a client alert/article tip. Write about the topics that are most important to your clients now and be first to market on the topic. For example, the coronavirus is of major to concerns to businesses worldwide. Can you see a connection to how it may impact your clients? If so, write about it as soon as possible. An article like this has the potential to help others.
...consider ways in which your firm can contribute to help this crisis from a corporate social responsibility perspective
Think of other topics that are timely and keeping your clients up at night and write about them now. Remember, good is good enough when it comes to writing alerts - don't miss the right window to publish content while it's a "hot topic" in order to perfect your wording and review it 76 times. Don't let one of your competitors or a colleague beat you to writing about a topic that is your area of expertise.
If you find it hard to write an article, partner with a colleague and share the responsibilities - you'll build stronger relationships in the process - an added benefit. Publish this article on your firm's web site, social media channels (then you should like/share it too) and content syndicators. To read more about how to avoid content paralysis and publish more frequently, take a look at my JD Supra article on the topic.
A Final Note
As a responsible global citizen, consider ways in which your firm can contribute to help this crisis from a corporate social responsibility perspective – whether it is offering supplies, expertise or people support. Contribute to social cause as a firm, such as to the Red Cross.
There are so many unknowns with coronavirus, so it’s wise to over prepare in advance rather than reacting on a real-time basis. The best thing you can do for yourself, your family, your colleagues and your business is to stay informed, use common sense and communicate the steps that employees can take to avoid getting sick and most importantly, don't unnecessarily overreact.
[Stefanie Marrone helps law firms effectively tell their stories and find their unique voices. Over the last 18 years, she has worked with some of the most prominent and innovative law firms in the world, developing and executing global revenue generating business development and communications strategies, including media relations, branding, and multichannel content marketing and social media campaigns. She is very passionate about using social media for lead generation and brand building. She has a diverse range of experience in both Big Law and mid-size/small-law firms. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow her latest writing on JD Supra as well as her blog The Social Media Butterfly.]