Many companies, including law firms, are trying to understand, appropriately react to and learn lessons from the unfolding coronavirus epidemic. 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.

Not surprisingly, fear and misinformation about the coronavirus have spread through word of mouth, television reports and social media. Hospital masks are scarce as are disinfectant wipes, both of which were easily available just a few short weeks ago. 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 guess this is our new normal. I unsuccessfully tried to purchase hand sanitizer online and in person with no luck, which alarmed me.

I recently got 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 decisions to temporarily close offices have/will be made
  • Changes in travel policies and client meeting protocol
  • How technology has helped your firm prepare for the virus

It got me thinking about the fact that some firms – especially small- and mid-size firms may not have an Infectious-Disease/Pandemic Management plan in place yet for the coronavirus, and they simply can’t afford not to as the virus continues to spread.

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.


Take Care of Your Employees – They Make Your Business Run Smoothly and Are Important Brand Ambassadors

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.

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 audience, 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.


Communicate Effectively

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.

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


How to Use the Coronavirus to 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 find 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 go viral and help others.

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.