Business should not think that the current crisis presents an opportunity to bury bad news. The opposite is the case and organisations will not be able to dodge bullets, nor sugar the pill.
- Journalists are just like us!
Everyone is working from home. Business editors have down the years complained that reporters ‘don’t get out enough’. They can’t now.
And although business coverage is dominated by the virus, companies are still reporting news. Activist shareholders are still circling vulnerable or challenged management teams. The markets are still open and newspapers are looking to interpret what is happening. And as we are all home-working (in fact, Montfort still has a core team physically in its ultra-safe offices across London) then it behoves us and our clients to adapt to the very different and difficult environment that our media contacts are facing. Newspapers and traditional broadcasters are more trusted than most online channels to deliver authoritative facts and opinions. Newspaper editors are acutely aware of the duty and opportunity to inform and advise and are trying to respond appropriately. We all need to respond to this.
As we see below, the UK courts are making swift and decisive strides to continue the process of justice (and its communications). Business needs to do the same.
- Specific examples – the legal world
Call a legal reporter during any usual working day and they will likely be conducting an interview, in court, dashing between meetings or at a lunch. They depended until recently on picking up the snippets of information they needed outside the office to maintain a healthy output and keep their editors pleased. That routine has now been upended with most journalists confined to their homes. In this new climate, Montfort is finding that the opportunity to provide journalists with thoughtfully packaged and well-sourced stories is greater than it ever was. Although the coronavirus is naturally dominating news coverage, editors are also very conscious that there is, more generally, potential for greatly increased news consumption as their readers work from home.
On Wednesday evening the HM Courts & Tribunal Service announced the closure of public counters at the High Court and Court of Appeals. The Lord Chief Justice has said that jury trials lasting longer than three days are to be postponed. Litigators of all stripes are in agreement that the way courts operate will change dramatically for the foreseeable future. The relaying of information between the courts and the outside world – via the media – is therefore now much more difficult. This inevitably makes the demand for legal communications even more pressing when journalists can no longer rely on listings, can no longer be present at court and cannot even access filings through the public counters for information. Lawyers and their clients will be keen to ensure that legal disputes are reported accurately and prevent an unhelpful information vacuum during this time.
Whilst the top stories of each day might be dominated by the pandemic, those following the legal pages and legal news websites will see that the show is still very much going on. The Times, for example, has been keen to ensure that the regular reporting of legal news continues, despite the impact of coronavirus. Therefore, lawyers working on high profile cases should still expect scrutiny of their matters and continued coverage by legal journalists. Those hoping that the current crisis presents an opportunity to bury bad news are likely to be disappointed in the short term and could even find that it comes back to haunt them later down the line.
- Increasing use of online
The pandemic has forced courts across the globe to close in efforts to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus. In the UK, an entire trial took place over Skype, presided over by Mr. Justice Mostyn, in a legal first that could become a blueprint for how to ensure court business continues during the pandemic As litigation proceedings transition to online hearings, it will become all the more vital for parties to have clear channels of communication with the media and with other stakeholders. This will be particularly important in the immediate term, so that parties can keep relevant stakeholders up to date on the status of any ongoing litigation which has now been cast into uncertainty and over the coming weeks as HMCTS works to ensure that working IT infrastructure is in place so that cases can be handled online.
It is equally possible that shareholder meetings, sell- and buyside activity and general public press conferences will for the time being become defunct. At Montfort we are certainly anticipating these trends and building strategies for clients to deal with the new communications reality.