It’s easy to dismiss crisis communications as a PR tactic designed to assuage public opinion about the latest scandal in pop culture. But having a firm crisis communications plan in place is a critical business strategy you probably didn’t learn about in law school.
Let’s be clear: crisis response plans are must-haves for more than just celebrities and household brands. As a business owner, you need one too.
James F. Haggerty is an NYC-based attorney and CEO of an internationally-recognized PR firm. Here’s what he has to say about crisis communications:
“Crisis communications planning and execution are vital for every company that interfaces with the public and worries about the negative implications of unforeseen (or at times, perhaps, foreseen) events on their organization and its reputation.”
In layman’s terms: if you have a public or audience and you care about what they think, you need a crisis plan. The ongoing coronavirus crisis is a prime example of this, and we’ll use that crisis to frame the rest of this article.
Here’s what else Haggerty has to say about crises: Sh*t happens. And when it does, you need a plumber who knows how to fix it.
Here are 5 tips for how to develop your law firm’s crisis communication strategy:
- Find your plumber
- Address the crisis head-on
- Communicate early and often
- Be a resource for your clients
- Focus on providing value, not sparking fear
1. Find your plumber
Who’s going to take charge when sh*t hits the proverbial fan? Before you can execute a crisis response, you need to find the person who will head up your crisis communications strategy.
This is not the glamorous role of spin doctor you see on cable TV. This is the person who knows the ins and outs of your law firm and has the wherewithal to develop a response and address crises in a timely, effective manner.
If you’ve got a lean team, maybe this is your marketing person. Maybe it’s you. Maybe you outsource the efforts to an external agency. Whatever your options, make sure you’ve designated who will be the key player in responding to unexpected public events.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be one person — if you create a plan and disseminate resources properly, multiple members of your team can step up to the plate when the need arises.
2. Address the crisis head-on
When unexpected events happen that affect your business, your clients will look to you for answers.
The global spread of coronavirus caused a slew of court closures that led to trial suspensions or visitor restrictions. That’s an event that directly affects your business and your clients. They want to know what happens to their case, when their trial will be rescheduled, and if these events have any bearing on the outcome of their legal proceedings.
While you may not have all — or any — of the answers, you need to address the situation head-on.
Put yourself in your clients’ shoes.
Imagine you’re nearing the end of a months-long process of trying to settle a personal injury case. You had a court date set. Seemingly out of nowhere, a mysterious virus sweeps the globe and all the courts in your area are mandated to close. Your attorney is radio silent. Calls and emails go unanswered, and you can’t find any information on their social channels.
How would you react?
When formulating your crisis response, work quickly to put together content that explains if and how the situation will affect your clients and what your team is doing to resolve the matter.
With respect to COVID-19, you should have long ago published material that outlines how your firm is addressing court closures and trial suspensions, along with what plans you’ve put in place to keep your clients’ cases on track.
If you haven’t done this yet, you need to. If you don’t, your clients will quickly lose trust.
3. Communicate early and often
Here’s a popular project management adage that applies to crisis communications: communicate early and often.
Sure, they say no news is good news, but when things are changing as quickly as they are now, continually offering updates during a crisis via your social media channels or email is the way to go.
Long periods without updates can cause frustration and confusion for your clients, which are the exact sentiments you want to prevent during a crisis.
Right now, nothing is certain, so you can’t wait around for concrete updates to fall into your lap. Your job is to keep your clients calm, and that means sharing the information you have at your disposal and being transparent about what you don’t know (within reason, of course).
Here’s what this could look like for your law firm during the COVID-19 crisis:
- Create a social post that outlines how your firm is addressing the coronavirus crisis (including information like office closures, trial suspensions, and so on). Pin it to the top of your firm’s page. When applicable, update the post and indicate you’ve made changes (i.e. “Updates as of May 1, 2020:”).
- Instruct your case managers to email your clients with individual updates about their cases. Continue to communicate regularly with them and let them know how they can contact you. Make sure they’re aware of important changes (such as whether or not your team is working remotely, if your office is closed, or if hours of operation have changed).
- Create a page on your website dedicated to providing frequent updates about your firm’s response to the crisis as it evolves. Add it to your website’s navigation menu so it’s easy to find. Here’s our resource center for all things COVID-19.
4. Be a resource for your clients
Just because you can’t go to court doesn’t mean you can’t continue to be a resource for your clients. In the interim, focus on areas where you know you can be of value to your clients and create content to supplement those areas.
There’s an easy way to do this: ask your clients what they need. It’s that simple.
Create an email survey or post on social media asking how your firm can best support them during this time and what types of content they’d like to see.
If you’re an unemployment attorney, your clients will likely want to learn more about changes in unemployment benefits and how COVID-19 is impacting those benefits.
If you practice tenant law, your clients want to know about rent freezes, eviction bans, and whether or not their housing is secured if they’ve temporarily lost income due to COVID-19.
If you’re a criminal defense attorney and you frequently communicate with the families of incarcerated clients, they’re probably closely following news updates surrounding coronavirus outbreaks in the criminal justice system.
Or maybe your clients are bombarded with news updates and they want a respite from the bad news. You can help with that, too. If you’ve found yourself in the unique position to be able to support your local communities, embrace that position and identify opportunities to give back.
Reza Torkzadeh of TorkLaw recently shared what his law firm is doing on that front:
Are many of your clients essential workers? See how you can support them directly. If you can’t, have your client base vote on a local charity that’s working to provide relief to anyone impacted by coronavirus and donate to that organization.
However your clients respond, invest time and energy in creating content that’s useful to your audience right now.
5. Focus on providing value, not sparking fear
There’s a lot of misinformation spreading around right now. People are scared and confused. But at the end of the day, you still have a business to run, which means you need to bring on new clients. While you can’t turn off your marketing campaigns, you can — and should — adjust your messaging to reflect how you can provide value to your clients during times of uncertainty.
As a law firm owner, you’re uniquely positioned to help people during some of the most vulnerable periods of their lives. Successful law firm marketers know that they can use this to their advantage, but they also know there’s a fine line between focusing on addressing pain points and being exploitive.
Make sure you’re not crossing that line in your marketing.
Let’s look at two hypothetical examples of how law firms could address coronavirus while also addressing how they can solve potential clients’ pain points.
The coronavirus is wreaking havoc on the criminal justice system and infecting prison populations. Make sure you don’t end up there. Call 1-800-NOT-GUILTY today.
Are you confused about Georgia tenant protections and eviction moratoriums? Do you suspect your landlord may have violated those protections? We can help. Call our office for a complimentary consultation to get up to speed on recent changes to the law and how COVID-19 affects your rights as a tenant.
The key difference between these two examples is that the first focuses on fear and the second focuses on providing value. Both walk the fine line of addressing a sensitive situation, but the second positions the law firm as a trusted source, while the first comes off as distasteful and tone-deaf.
Remember: there’s no court quite like the court of public opinion.
During a crisis, it’s your business and reputation on the line. Your audience will look to you for answers. Your firm’s reputation is reliant upon your ability to provide those answers.
Having a firm crisis communications plan helps to ensure you’ll be able to act quickly to address crises head-on and avoid tarnishing your brand’s reputation.