News and Publications

Keeping your verbal distance: getting your communications right in troubled times

Posted: 01/04/2020

At a time when huge swathes of the economy have been shut down and the population has been told to stay at home, one might suppose that concerns about personal reputation or privacy come a long way down the list of immediate priorities.

However, this is a time when the volume of communications, particularly online, is likely to grow significantly. These will involve not just the full gamut of social media conversations, posts and gallows humour but will also consist of the very important messages that businesses, schools, trade unions, charities and other organisations are sending - in many cases at least daily - to worried employees, parents, teachers and others.

In the face of a crisis like no other, it is vital that these messages are clear, calming, consistent and accurate. Even our Government, backed by all its resources and access to the best expert input, has managed to perform some fairly dramatic changes in tone and advice such as “We will turn the tide in 12 weeks” and advocating ‘herd immunity’.

People are glued to the news like never before – 27 million watched Boris Johnson’s televised address to the nation on 23 March 2020. And people are reading emails from their workplaces with a much greater focus than in less troubled times. They are worried about the most important things in their lives – their families, their jobs, their health, their personal freedoms and their finances. The scope for anger and over-reaction is high.

Ten rules for good communication

 Here are some fairly obvious rules for organisations which should be borne in mind when communicating.

  • Make sure the information you are putting out is accurate and appropriately worded for your intended readership. It is better to wait to establish the facts than to publish something quickly which then has to be contradicted. That is a sure way to lose the confidence of your readers and to cause them anxiety.
  • Do not make untrue allegations about individuals. A false statement published to third parties is libellous if it is likely to cause serious harm to someone’s reputation.  
  • Do not disclose confidential material.
  • Be aware of the need to respect individuals’ privacy. For example, announcing the names of those members of staff who have contracted coronavirus (or even those who are displaying the symptoms) could possibly be an actionable misuse of their private information.
  • When emailing large numbers of people, do not commit data breaches such as putting all the recipients’ email addresses where they are visible in the ‘To’ or ‘CC’ boxes. Always use Bcc.
  • Corporate reputations are hard-won and easily lost. There is rarely a deep reservoir of public sympathy for wealthy CEOs and their fellow directors and certainly not at the moment. Many businesses face a desperately uncertain future but when they make what looks like knee-jerk and insensitive decisions which may devastate the lives of their employees or appear to be putting profit before public duty and common decency, their reputations can be shattered in an instant.

Of course financial considerations are important but decisions at this time of crisis need to take fully into account the implications for employees; the Government guidance; the new legal regulations which are being imposed on almost a daily basis; and the appropriate tone for the public mood.

Many journalists on national newspapers and broadcasters are sitting at home with a time on their hands and a lot of pages and screen-time to fill. Articles comparing self-serving actions by company bosses with the heroic selflessness of NHS workers are bound to find a large audience – and will trigger a furious follow up on social media (it is not just journalists who have a lot of time on their hands).

  • If people respond to statements you have published with online abuse or contempt, try to resist the temptation to get dragged into a social media battle. The keyboard warriors can be infuriating and the desire to put them back in their box with a sharp response can be seductive. Realistically, it is a battle you are unlikely to win and it just consumes valuable time and headspace. Regard the vast majority of uninformed social media comments as background noise and trust other more reasonable readers to do the same.
  • But, if something is published which is genuinely damaging, then take advice on whether and, if so, how to address it. There are legal options but these need experienced and considered legal input if one is to make the situation better rather than worse (not least financially). One may need to consider a range of possible claims comprising not just libel or privacy but possibly harassment as well.
  • If your organisation finds itself the target of media interest, then make sure that you are equipped to deal with this in an efficient and consistent way. Appoint one trusted person to deal with the media. Make sure your lawyers are alerted as soon as possible if it looks as if it may be necessary to try to prevent or correct a publication.
  • If approached by a journalist, always ask them to put their questions in an email. Not only does this create an audit trail but it affords a measure of control over what you say and provides time to consider your answer. A telephone conversation with a clever reporter is much more unpredictable and you run the risk of your comments being misreported.

Hopefully, concerns of the sort highlighted in these guidelines will not arise but Covid-19 is a crisis which could last months with an intensity that will not slacken. In such circumstances, a communications policy and procedure has to work effectively to help protect your organisation. The reputation management and privacy team at Penningtons Manches Cooper is highly experienced and we are happy to assist in providing advice, guidance and action if the need arises.

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