“There’s a lot of collective learning that’s going on” - Gus Sellitto, Byfield Consultancy

From reputation management, internal communications and litigation PR, Gus Sellitto brings in-depth insight into managing the extraordinary comms challenges for the legal sector throughout the pandemic.

“There’s a lot more litigation as a result of a crisis situation”

“We started Byfield consultancy in 2007, a year later we had the major financial crash. So, we had that experience of going through a previous recession and coming through it relatively strongly. The legal sector is pretty resilient when it comes to downturns in the economy. There’s that old saying, ‘you’ll always need a lawyer,’ and actually, it’s true. Unfortunately, as a result of this kind of crisis, we’re seeing a higher demand in certain parts of law, such as employment law. There are lots of redundancies happening as well as bankruptcy and restructuring. Of course, as we saw from the last downturn, there’s a lot more litigation as a result of a crisis situation.”

“Eighty per cent of our revenue is still retained revenue… and that certainly took a hit. We immediately had clients saying they needed to lower their monthly retainer fee or that they needed to take a pause. That made a large impact on what was already an ambitious forecast going into our new financial year. We had to essentially rip that up and say, actually if we can sustain what we did last year, that would be a good outcome.”

“It’s not all doom and gloom”

“We’ve just done a study with the London Business School which looked at the top six things keeping law firm leaders up at night and the communications challenges that are attached to those issues. Leadership communications were certainly something that came up as a key concern.

One of the really interesting debates that are ongoing is how and when to break bad news and also how to balance that with good news. At a time when salaries are being cut, people are being asked to work shorter hours and new recruits have been frozen; how do you give that news in a way which doesn’t alarm people, but which isn’t sugar-coated. At the same time, it’s not all doom and gloom. So, how do you impart that good news as well as the bad news? Particularly when things are being done over Zoom.”

“We’re password protecting documents more and using double authentication”

“The first priority was to make sure everybody was safe and that meant moving from an office-based environment to a virtual environment….We always had a daily team meeting where we went through the newspapers and discussed the issues of the day and that really helped keep the communication going. One of the positives that have come out of all of this is that our internal communications has improved and will continue to do so. We’re finding that the need to communicate has been heightened and so we’re planning more internal communication around key business decisions we’re having to make.”

“Security is important in relation to what we do and there are simple measures you can put in place for that. We’re password protecting documents more and using double authentication. When I do need to print and scan big documents, I will go back into the office. In terms of the challenges, I’ve been surprised at how well we’ve been able to adapt to a virtual environment, including issues around security.”

“We did have to make reductions in salary”

“During lockdown, we started to become a lot more focused on the numbers. We started having a weekly meeting called a ‘mini cobra meeting’ and that involved our non-exec chairman and a business advisor we’ve been working with for a few years who had a very successful PR business and now advises PR agencies. So, we’re very lucky to have that leadership team around us and I’ve leant heavily on them. Every week we’ve had a laser-sharp focus on the numbers. That’s helped us to really focus on ensuring client services remain a priority.

We also looked at what our monthly income needed to be and we did have to make reductions in salary as a result of the reductions we’d suffered in the first two or three months of the pandemic. Staff were very understanding but at the same time, we quickly realised that people were working harder than normal, so we wanted to come up with an incentive to help us be focused on what we had to do on a monthly basis to be able to pay full salaries. We communicated to the team that we needed to make X amount every month to make a small profit and that if we focused on making that we would all receive 100% of our salary. That’s been a good exercise in helping the team become more financially aware of running a small business.”

“The law is very much a people professional and PR is very much the same”

“I think the biggest change comes in this notion that we all have to be in an office and meet face to face to do business. I think the law is very much a people professional and PR is very much the same. But moving forward I think there will be more of a hybrid version as people are seeing more of the personal benefits of being able to work from home and spend time with their family. We will spend some of our time in the office, particularly for important meetings and presentations but I think it will be more reflective of our new normal.”

PR in Lockdown is a podcast series produced by Access Studios in collaboration with the PRCA. It is available on YouTube and all major podcast libraries.