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06 March 2020

Coronavirus risk may be unprecedented, but the fundamental principles of crisis response still apply

Crisis PR specialist Bethaney Durkin advises law firms impacted by the coronavirus to act quickly while avoiding a kneejerk response

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Bethaney Durkin: 'The first principle is that while acting quickly is crucial, firms must be wary of a kneejerk response.'

Coronavirus represents a sudden and significant crisis for countries, governments, companies and individuals. Law firms are not immune from its impact. A relatively small number of firms have been affected to date, with a variety of approaches taken in response. 

In Vienna, when a Wolf Theiss Partner contracted the virus the firm sprang into action, installing a crisis management team, establishing a medical hotline and testing 280 members of staff for the virus. 

In London, when an employee showed symptoms after travelling from Northern Italy, Baker McKenzie closed its office, asking all staff to work from home while the office was deep cleaned. At Deloitte meanwhile, an employee tested positive for the virus. However, rather than shut the office, Deloitte confirmed the floor the employee worked on would close for deep cleaning, and that employees may work from home if concerned about contamination. 

These examples show that a range of measures and precautions have been implemented by affected firms so far to handle the situation, with some responses more drastic than others.

While the first point of recourse should be to the official guidance, in the UK the guidance provided to date has faced criticism for offering generalities and being light on detail, and firms may feel that the recommended response may not sufficiently reassure members of staff in the event of a potential case at the firm.

Firms risk being caught between a rock and a hard place, with the potential to over-communicate or over-react and cause panic, or face accusations of a lack of action and not taking the situation seriously enough. 

Uncharted territory

It’s fair to say that we are on uncharted territory here, and that each situation may require its own unique response while there is still the potential for ‘unknown unknowns’ in play. There is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution for firms to implement.  

However, any crisis scenario requires a carefully planned and coordinated crisis PR response to inform, reassure and advise every stakeholder affected by it. While the risks posed by coronavirus are unprecedented, the fundamental principles of responding to a crisis still apply, and bear repeating. 

The first principle is that while acting quickly is crucial, firms must be wary of a kneejerk response.

To be effective, any action taken must be fully planned out. A crisis of this nature can require a response on a number of levels, escalating from an individual level through to local, national and potentially global measures.

Consistency and clarity of message is essential. While this is a crisis, with potential to severely affect a firm’s operations, people, business and clients, the first goal of firm communications under the response plan is to seek to create calmness, to allow the plan to be implemented smoothly and minimise disruption and anxiety. 

Preparing a robust crisis plan, encompassing short-term, medium-term and long-term scenarios is essential. The plan should include a thorough stakeholder map, detailing all parties who may be affected, draft communications for all stakeholder segments, including responding to media enquiries, and extensive scenario planning. 

Clear guidance

All stakeholders will need clear guidance for what is and isn’t permitted under any measures implemented, and each part of the response should be agreed, tested and held in readiness.

For example, if implementing agile working is required – has the IT provision been thoroughly tested? Are staff familiar with all necessary protocols for agile and remote working, or does training need to be given? If the office is to be deep cleaned, what does this mean in practice? Has a service provider been appointed in readiness?

The risk level posed by coronavirus is developing on a daily basis. To manage it effectively, my advice to clients has been to keep the fundamental principles of crisis management in view, while being prepared to be malleable in the response and take necessary decisions quickly. 

Bethaney Durkin is a crisis PR specialist at Byfield Consultancy

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