What the Pandemic Teaches Us About Clear Messaging and Crisis Communications

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The pandemic has been marked by times when the public health messaging driving mainstream behavior has been altered, or even reversed in short order.

  • No need to wear masks.
  • You need to wear a mask.
  • You need to wear two masks.
  • You don’t need a mask unless in certain circumstances, provided you are vaccinated.
  • Everyone needs a mask, regardless of vaccination status.

These enormously impactful directives have caused people from across the ideological spectrum to grumble, or worse, cease complying. The pandemic has been the crisis of our lifetimes and a messaging challenge like no other. What lessons can law firms take from 18-plus months of confusing guidance? Let’s examine:

Deliver a clear message, even if you don’t have clarity. The ironic, tired idiom, “Hindsight is 20/20,” has taken on new meaning. Initial public health guidance, from the likes of Dr. Anthony Fauci, clearly stated what was known at the time. Law firms navigating themselves or their clients through a crisis need to work with knowns and avoid messaging or commenting on speculation.

Change your message promptly when new information is available. Depending on the situation, sensitivities and need for transparency, firms should be ready and able to pivot messaging points, based on new information. For example, this may be necessary after the results of an internal review – whether the firm’s or a client’s. Misleading or trying to misdirect the public and the media is a recipe for failure and has long-term, negative consequences.

Data needs a decoder. The general public and the media have had to learn about dense concepts like “preprint databases” and wade through an array of forecasts and charts that are opaque, and potentially misleading, to all but those trained in fields like epidemiology. As a society, we increasingly expect access to source materials. This should not be unfamiliar as law firms have experienced this phenomenon for years with many court filings just a click away. Strategizing in advance on messaging and privately preparing talking points through contentious litigation protects the client and the firm. And press releases and media statements remain vital in centering issues and developments. Much like we see with public health, there are very real and meaningful limits to what “doing the research” as an outsider can yield.

If it’s not your data, consider being the decoder. Reporters of all stripes covering the pandemic have sought out experts to demystify conflicting statements and sudden reversals. Attorneys can and have played this role. If a firm has lawyers who are consistently complaining that the local daily or national news outlets aren’t understanding an issue with legal implications, ask them to step forward and offer to educate the scribes. Media-engaged attorneys often develop true working relationships with reporters, yielding “go-to” thought leader status and comfort and trust in sorting through information, even if “off the record.”

Know that self-appointed “citizen ombudsmen” are legion. The abundance of data, combined with the availability of low-barrier/high-visibility feedback mechanisms (such as Yelp and AVVO), heighten reputational risk. Expect and look for snarky comments, meanspirited (and often entirely unfounded) reviews and public scrutiny. Be sure to monitor for developments and have each and every attorney with the potential of being in the public eye “batten down the digital hatches” – scrubbing and privatizing social media posts and accounts and scrutinizing any past public commentary.

Be prepared to counter misinformation. Misinformation spreads incredibly easily in a social media-centric world where a little web design knowhow or modest design spend can birth viral content and slick-looking “news” sites. Firms (and their clients) in the public eye need to both know what is being said and use their platforms and brand resources to aggressively push back on damaging narratives. Don’t engage the trolls, but don’t ignore them either.

Expect the unexpected in a crisis (including the really unexpected). When the FDA tweeted that humans should not consume horse medicine, surely the makers of the veterinarian version of the drug Ivermectin must have shaken their heads. They have been forced to consider messaging points for their own “black swan”-esque event. The makers of Lysol experienced the same as early-on messaging about bleach was misinterpreted to tragic results. Both instances serve as reminders that a crisis fire can break out anywhere at any minute. Be prepared and have skilled crisis communications plans and communicators at the ready. Rapid responses preserve brand integrity, can help protect against litigation and – in the above cases – may even save lives.

Thankfully, the scale of a pandemic dwarfs any crisis an individual firm or client will ever face. But crises will surely come. Some may amount to sparks that fade into the night while others may turn into major conflagrations.

Clear, concise and thoughtful communication plans and at-hand resources serve both a preventative and restorative function. Firms should not wait until a problem arises to seek guidance. A crisis messaging team will literally be with the firm and its principals in the trenches with heavy fire all around. These volatile situations are not ideal times for getting to know each other, and they require mutual trust.

The pandemic’s public health messaging lessons are not new; rather, they are tried-and-true principles on steroids. They do, however, serve as an imminently accessible teaching moment for law firms, their marketers and their attorneys.

Originally published by the Legal Marketing Association (LMA) – Mid-Atlantic Region

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