Many people in the legal community were shocked to learn of a major fire at the Law Society that started Saturday evening and in to Sunday. Thankfully no one was hurt, and the Society’s main building seems largely untouched. But staff have still lost space, work and, of course, personal possessions. When I worked in the press office, I think I had half my wardrobe there.
In that context, communication is key, and getting it right is a duty. I think the Law Society did well on this count. At this early stage I have a few thoughts.
Inevitably the first news came from people on the spot, quickly amplified by social media, and hastily written up by the media. The BBC, Sky and ITV all carried reports.
That’s not something you’d expect the Society to be in control of. Those in charge need to check their facts, to know as much as they can, so that what they can say is authoritative.
Chief executive Paul Tennant issued a few well-judged statements on Sunday. He recognised a devastating loss, but also knew to start by thanking people involved: ‘First of all I wanted to express my gratitude to the fire service and my relief that nobody has been hurt. I also want to express my sympathy to the residents in the Chancery Lane area whom I understand may have had to evacuate their homes.’
I think his most important audience here were in fact staff – their early recourse is to the news, and they expect to see their organisation’s leader on it. Next, there are lawyers, many of whom have affection for the building – I’m told its wonderful library was busy as ever last week, and is thankfully safe.
In a crisis, what’s said internally is as important as what you can say externally. This also happened on Sunday. Even when little is known, staff need to hear you are on the case – that you will be getting back to them. This helps stop rumours spreading, and is more reassuring than silence while you find a full solution.
Staff need to know what happened, and then they need to know what happens next. Managers need prompting to take first steps, checking on and communicating with their line reports and each other. Everyone has a role, and everyone should know who they can contact.
Networks like an employee forum, staff association or union can be helpful – useful conduits for passing on anything about the response that is not working. Are there things you can ask them to do?
Done well, all this is a chance to be seen at your best – empathy, concern, gratitude, and a capable manner can all be on display. If you look at the response on social media over the weekend and today, you’ll also see an incredible outpouring of support and sympathy. It’s worth taking time out to acknowledge that goodwill.