Then Came the Lawyers

Then Came the Lawyers

Then came the churches, then came the schools, then came the lawyers, then came the rules.

Here we are, nearing the end of the summer of COVID in what’s become the year of COVID. Recently, I was reminded of an old Dire Straits song called “Telegraph Road.” It’s a 14-minute track on the band’s 1982 album (remember those?) Love Over Gold. 

The lengthy song is “a challenge to the average pop fan’s attention span,” wrote Rolling Stone editor David Fricke. Yet it captured “a historic sweep and intimate tension — the building of America and the dashing of one man’s dreams in the wake of its accelerating crumble.” 

One lyric in particular stands out in my mind: “Then came the churches, then came the schools, then came lawyers, then came the rules.” As we think about coming back from COVID, we need to also be concerned about the coming of the lawyers.

We expect to sign legal waivers at places like ski resorts, water parks and climbing gyms. Now we’re finding them at ordinary, “safe” places like colleges and hair salons, opined NPR’s Greg Rosalsky. “In the age of COVID-19, every reopened institution is now a bungee-jumping facility.”

Legal liability and risks from lawsuits over virus exposure are inevitably going to drive decision making. When I recorded the video above, major college football conferences were deciding what to do about the season. Some opted to push ahead with a shorter, slightly delayed fall season. Others decided to delay the season until the spring. Within those conferences, some schools are playing single games this fall before what they hope is a full spring season.

I believe that university administrators are very concerned about their student athletes’ health and welfare. However,  their fears about legal liability may be the more important consideration for decisions of how to play football this year.

Talk to Your Attorneys

I’m not an attorney, and I’m not offering legal advice. I am a strategic communicator who has worked with in-house and outside to serve our clients. Now is a perfect time to consult your legal team to understand your liability risks. Don’t let your attorneys be “Dr. No.” There is, after all, no way to have zero risk while doing business during a pandemic. There’s no zero risk even if there were no coronavirus.

Instead, know your potential liability, and take those risks into consideration when you’re making decisions about coming back. I like the metaphor of a dimmer switch. Coming back should not be thought of as just on or off. Rather, operations should be dialed up or down as conditions change. 

Beyond acknowledging liability risk in decision making, strategic communications need to consider risk to the organization’s reputation. Prepare your messaging now before “then came the lawyers” defines your messaging for you. 

Now is the time for us to be thinking about how we are going to engage in our rules of engagement. Then came the lawyers. We know that the lawyers are getting ready to come.

Bill Coletti

Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.

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