Communicating during uncertain times: How to navigate through a crisis environment

March 24, 2020 • 5 minute read

With COVID-19, and the frequency of high-impact events increasing, how can firms keep their footing?

The COVID-19 outbreak is a crisis of unprecedented size and its impact continues to shift and grow. Even businesses that have crisis communications plans on their shelves or have previously experienced a significant business interruption are realizing their communication strategies may need reframing to navigate this new environment—that an event of this magnitude demands preparatory measures that are open-ended and ripe for frequent revision. The best approach involves laying the groundwork to respond to a variety of contingencies as the virus continues to spread and force systemic changes, and planning frequent meetings with your crisis communications team to ensure your plan is updated to match the latest development.

The following points will help businesses build flexible and effective crisis communications strategies.

Organizational response

Communicate, communicate, communicate with your employees.

Your employees are your most important asset. Be proactive in communicating with them and keep them apprised of changes. Ensure that they know where to find updates and whom to contact with questions, and that they understand how your firm’s decisions will impact their day-to-day work.

For instance, if remote work is an arrangement that is foreign to your employees, keep the lines of communication open so that they feel connected and secure should glitches arise.

At a time like this, the purpose of open communication reaches beyond productivity and trust: It can help support employees who may feel emotionally isolated or overwhelmed by the negative news cycle.

Communicate proactively with clients.

Our law firm and professional service clients all share the same concern: Their clients want to know what these firms are doing to navigate the pandemic. The steps their advisers and counsel take to prepare for and adjust to a crisis directly impact clients’ businesses and even the personal lives of those within client organizations.

Be proactive in communicating with clients around steps your firm is taking, keeping in mind that companies are being inundated with coronavirus-related updates. Surpass the generic “here is the state of the pandemic” verbiage that’s already filling inboxes — companies aren’t looking to their law firms for that information. Rather, keep your communications narrow and specific, focusing on the only issue that matters to your clients: how your organization, specifically, is handling the fallout from the pandemic and what clients should expect from you as you see it through. Is your entire office working remotely? If so, how are you protecting confidential communications? Where can clients find updates on their matters? To whom can clients direct questions?

While putting together your proactive communications, think through specific client questions and determine whether it makes sense to include answers in this message, to prepare answers to use reactively, or to host an FAQ on the firm website (or a combination of the three).

Communicate reactively with the media.

It is vital to prepare for media inquiries, particularly if you need to quickly disseminate a message to the masses. However, keep in mind that your proactive client communications will take precedence while you are under fire. The media is likely inquiring around what you are telling clients — get that squared away first, then use those communications to shape what you share with reporters.

Potential employee exposure and diagnoses

With companies temporarily shuttering brick-and-mortar offices, the issue of employee exposure to the virus may seem less pressing than it did at the beginning of the pandemic. Nonetheless, employers need to consider it. Because the virus can incubate for up to fourteen days, it is possible an employee could have been exposed to it before your office closed.

Communicating updates on employee exposure and diagnoses is difficult. There is a fundamental conflict between, on the one hand, health privacy laws that restrict the information employers can release, and on the other hand, a company’s obligation to keep its employees apprised of matters that impact their health and safety.

Assemble a team of communications, legal and human resources professionals to think through your communication strategy and set a policy in place should employees be exposed or diagnosed. If you later find out that an employee was exposed or infected, engage this task force to determine the level of detail you can and should share with your firm and clients. In advance, compile questions to pose to your task force: If the virus infects your staff, what questions need to be answered? How should the topic be approached? Who are your key stakeholders, and how should they be informed? Use these prompts as an outline should you need to issue a statement about how your organization is responding to an exposure or diagnosis.

Returning to normal business operations

With the situation evolving so quickly, it is unlikely that companies will resume normal business operations any time soon. Nonetheless, reassure your employees that when that day does come, you are prepared.

As time brings clarity in terms of next steps, begin developing employee communications regarding re-entering the physical workspace or re-commencing work. Be open about time frames while also communicating the potential for changes if circumstances change. In addition, you will want to thoroughly communicate what your firm has done to ensure that employees will return to a safe and healthy workspace. At the most basic level, reassure employees that you have complied with directives from the CDC and local governments as you return to normal business operations.

Final words: Collaborate, then communicate

If the pandemic has taught businesses anything, it is that every part of an organization’s infrastructure, from crisis management and response to communications, business development and operations, must work as a united front.

Misinformation can lead to serious mistakes—in the case of a burgeoning pandemic, even fatalities. In our crisis response work with clients across industries, we’ve counseled this: Start early. Regroup. And respond quickly.

COVID-19 pandemic: Best communications practices

  • Stay in your lane. When it comes to communicating updates to your employees and clients, focus your message on what your organization is doing. Avoid providing generic updates on the state of the virus generally, as people can find this information anywhere. Keep yours tailored, focused, relevant and concise.
  • Provide an outlet for questions. People have questions. Give them clear directives about how to ask them. Also, let them know how you will update them going forward.
  • Choose the right channel. Communicate your updates in the way your audience is accustomed to. For instance, if you use emails for clients, continue to do so. If you use social media for the public at large, continue to update your channels.
  • Dedicate space. Create dedicated spaces for your external AND internal communications. For instance, offer a company intranet for staff and a dedicated webpage for clients, and regularly post the latest updates to both.