Professional service firms are well versed in reacting to large-scale events, whether it’s an economic crisis, a global pandemic or regulatory changes. How firm leaders respond, manage and communicate the subsequent impact with their people and clients is critical.
What many firms are less used to handling, is a natural disaster of epic proportions. On this episode of the CMO Series, Ed Lovatt welcomes Douglas Szabo, Managing Lawyer, and Gail Lamarche, Director of Marketing and Business Development at Henderson Franklin to hear what happened when Hurricane Ian hit Southwest Florida last year, and how the management team responded in the wake of a 500-year flood.
Ed, Gail and Douglas discuss:
- The immediate response when the hurricane hit and the first priorities
- How the senior management team came together to respond and the communications plans that were put into action
- How crisis plans were implemented or changed as things developed on the ground
- The importance and impact of thoughtful and authentic internal communications
- The priorities and processes of communication with external clients in the aftermath of a crisis
- The unintentional outcomes that resulted from the experience and how they might influence future processes
- Lessons and advice for law firm leaders and marketing professionals on planning crisis communications so they can be better prepared for potential future events
Intro: Welcome to the Passle podcast CMO Series.
Ed: Today's topic on the CMO Series podcast is responding to crises and the role of law firm leaders. Now, professional service firms are well versed in reacting to large-scale events, whether it's an economic crisis or regulatory changes. But how firm leaders respond, manage and communicate the subsequent impact with their people and clients is critical. What many firms, however, are less used to handling are natural disasters of epic proportions which do share some response tactics as the previously mentioned events, as they all have catastrophic effects on the firm and also on the livelihood of the people within it.
Today, we are extremely lucky to welcome Douglas Szabo, Managing Partner and Gail Lamarche, Director of Marketing and Business Development of Henderson, Franklin, Starnes & Holt in Florida. They're here to share what happened when hurricane Ian hit southwest Florida last year and how the management team responded in the wake of a 500-year flood that occurred afterwards. Now, this is an episode I've been really excited to record. So welcome Douglas, welcome Gail. Thank you so much for coming on board and doing this with me.
Doug: Morning, Ed. Thanks for having us and we look forward to trying to help your listeners in any way we can.
Gail: Thanks Ed, we're happy to be here.
Ed: As I say, this is something that I've been looking forward to. I've spoken with Gail for gosh, well, over a year now and we've been talking about getting a podcast together and this just seemed like the absolute perfect topic that affects a lot of people.
Now, As I mentioned, the entire world may be aware of Hurricane Ian and what happened in your part of the world in 2022. But for the audience Doug, could you tell us where you were and what happened when the storm hit and the immediate response that you had?
Doug: Yeah, again, thanks for having us. So, I'm sure everybody around the world is aware of Ian and the devastating effects it had on Southwest Florida here. You know, one of the unique things about hurricanes is, you know, they don't just happen overnight. So you have some lag time when things are starting to happen, but it first appeared on our radar about a week beforehand. Our facilities manager sent me an email on Friday morning, September 23rd at 6:42 a.m. That's the time I responded back to him and said, ‘Hey, there's a tropical depression’, it didn't even have a name at that time, ‘that's out there, and so we need to be aware of it.’ And so over the ensuing week, things changed dramatically for us, every single day it got more and more likely that it was going to impact us in Southwest Florida.
So on the day that it happened, we obviously knew probably a full day ahead of time that it was actually going to hit us. I don't think anybody anticipated that we knew that, you know, quite the magnitude that it was going to have. But fortunately, or unfortunately, Southwest Florida is not immune to hurricanes. So as the Managing Partner of Henderson Franklin, you know, I have a team around me that includes Gail, and a lot of different managers and we actually have in place a business continuity plan that kind of outlines what we're gonna do. But on the day of the event, all of our team members were at home or some had vacated the area. So I happened to live 2.5 miles from our office, so pretty close. But I was at home the morning it hit, kind of trying to track and follow how everything was going to happen and then tried to respond accordingly as to the updates and to best keep all of our team and employees up to date with what was happening.
Ultimately, as the day progressed, I grabbed my three dogs and got my vehicle and go to our office downtown. We have a five-story building and it was much more secure where I lived. I was actually five houses in from the river and live on a canal that flows out. And so around 6:30 that evening, the water crested in the canal behind my house and the water had come up out of the river and was, you know, starting to enter my yard. So I was able to get in my vehicle because I didn't know at that point how bad it was going to get. It took me 35 minutes to go 2.5 miles to my office because there were palm trees down, roads, you know, we're not passable, actually saw two royal palms fall, but I was able to make it to the office and then, you know, it's a much more secure location and kind of rode it out there.
Ed: Gosh. It's one of those things like you said at the beginning just then, there's a little bit of pre-warning behind it because it's being reported, you're getting the warnings maybe even a week in advance, but you still have no idea how big or how catastrophic it is going to be kind of until it happens, which is where the response part comes in, I suppose. Gail perhaps you could jump in and let me know how did the management team come together in, in response to this? And Doug just briefly mentioned that there was a bit of a plan in place already. Was there a specific plan for this or was it just for sort of any natural disaster or any crisis of any sort?
Gail: That's a great question, Ed. Being in Florida, especially Southwest Florida. We had a hurricane plan that actually went into the whole business continuity plan because it's not just a hurricane, it could be, or tornado, it could be, you know, COVID, it could be really anything - fires. So this plan really - and we had just finished redoing it, which was, it was all still fresh in our minds. And, you know, we had a plan A, we had a plan B, and it turned out we needed maybe a C, D and E. You know, when it ended up being so close to a cat five, we call it a cat five. It was like 10 miles away from that, and it hits so close to home.
It's funny because three of the managers, there's, I think five or six of us, three of us live within two miles, in Cape Coral, and we were all checking on each other until we, you know, lost power. But it was silly things like having a satellite phone and who has the satellite phone and who can have service to use the satellite phone. So it was, you know, it was, we had all the plans in place and we just, we just ploughed through. We had an amazing team.
Ed: From our previous conversations that we've had about this, it's really shown to me how amazing the team you guys have as a whole firm. It sounds like everybody really came together. Quick question as a side note on that, even having that plan in place. And you said it was recently finished, how much of that, how much of that plan suddenly goes out the window and how much of it can you really stick to?
Doug: You know, it's a great question and, you know, I want to be careful for your listeners how to say it right. I mean, this was literally what they called a 500-year storm. So, you know, I recommend to all your listeners whatever potential crisis might be affecting your area right there, all different depending on where you live. But having a plan in place is critical, regardless of whether it gets thrown out the window by the events, you know, just having a plan, I think helps to calm everybody down, not just the managers, but in the way we communicate with the rest of the staff. And although the plan never anticipated a 500-year storm, it allowed us to adapt more easily to the changing circumstances on the ground as it as it happened. So things got thrown out just because of the devastation. We had actually gone through a hurricane, you know, five years ago, I think it was Irma, that actually was a direct hit on our area, was supposed to be offshore like Ian was and it, it didn't come to fruition that it was offshore. So, although it had some really bad impacts on the area was not nearly as devastating as in so having the plan in place is important, but it, for the most part went out the window. But I think the real thing that helped us was kind of the things that we had in the plan in terms of communicating with people. And Gail mentioned a satellite phone, we had set up email communication, we had, we have an emergency text alert system. We had a call-in number that's actually located outside the state of Florida. So if people had cell phone access or were able, for example, to some people evacuated the area. And so they might be on the other side of the state or up in Tampa Orlando where they did not lose communication, they could call into that cell phone number and try and communicate. And then as Gail said, you know, the last thing that we do is, you know, we have people that are within areas of each other can drive around and check up on people.
So the plan kind of never anticipated this, but you know, you make do and you try and make sure that everybody is alert and that you can account for everybody because that's really as the management, the managing partner of the firm at that point in time, we're all people and you care about your people. You know, there one of your biggest assets aside from your clients for a law firm is, you know, your people that, you know, come to work every day and help us put out the product that we put out, the service that we put out.
Ed: I think that's a really, really good message to get across that Doug, that is the vital part, the lifeline of the firm is the people within it. And that's actually what matters at that time. And yes, the plan maybe went out the window and if this isn't a phrase, I'm coining it right now, even the small smallest plans make the biggest differences. You can quote me on that in years to come. If somebody ever decides to pick it up.
Doug: I'll use it.
Ed: Thank you. When we spoke before and actually Doug, you've also just mentioned it on this, the communication part was so key with the entire firm. How important do you think it was from everybody's point of view that the management team and everybody sort of even from the juniors all the way up and the administration staff, how do you think how important it was to them?
Gail: Oh my, I'll field that one. Communication is key. We were all nervous, we're all on edge and, you know, knowing that you need to check in with somebody and somebody's worried about you and, and you know, you're worried about your job, you're worried about your family. But I have to say I'm going to try and get through this because I've got your email up, Doug and I'm gonna try and get through this without cracking, but I don't know if I can or not. But Doug had a poignant message that made everybody to tears, I’ll not read the whole thing. But he said, ‘First and foremost, I consider all of you to be members of the Henderson Franklin family and my thoughts and prayers go out to all of you. My primary concern is your physical, mental and emotional well-being.’ He went on to thank the administration and quote, ‘unbelievable acts of kindness and generosity, which come to my attention daily. I'm so proud of being the Managing Partner and getting the opportunity to be with the best group of people. We will continue to do our best, but I know we'll make mistakes and I'm committed to getting us back to normalcy while making sure all are secure in their personal lives.’ And he went on to give us his personal cell phone number. I didn't make it through that.
Ed: We've had this conversation before this recording Gail. And I remember, it means a lot when I spoke to you, I could see how much it meant and just hearing your voice then it's obvious in response to my question, you know, it is incredibly important.
Gail: When you have leaders like that, you'll do anything and, and one of the things, when we all met, I think it was a Saturday morning before we all could get in, the managers and Doug could get into the office together. We had, you know, a game plan making sure everybody was okay. And, you know, it was, it was clear that, you know, they said then too, if you can come in, we'd appreciate it. But make sure your family and your stuff is good first. And that made people, you know, you want to work for leaders like that, who, who show that care and concern.
Ed: Absolutely. It's inspiring.
Doug: Can I add one thing to that?
Ed: Of course you can.
Doug: Again, I think the purpose of this call for your listeners is just trying to help them when they face a situation. Hopefully they don't, I don't wish this upon anybody. And so the lessons you learned, what worked, what didn't work. And that, and one of the things that occurred to me early, like the day after, like I drove back to my house at five in the morning and again, it took me 40 minutes to get back because there were so many trees down, and you know when I got back, I luckily had no water intrusion into my house. You could see a line of coconuts in my yard, there were about 15 ft from my house. So that's where the water had gotten up to literally before it would have been flooding inside my house. But I had no electricity, no cable, no internet. My cell phone service wasn't working. I had no ability to communicate with anybody. And so it occurred to me that I didn't know how many other people were in the same boat. And we have people all throughout Southwest Florida living in various locations. So, you know, when it got daylight and I could assess the damage at my house and then feel like I survived this and I'm sure many others are much worse off.
I drove out east where it would likely be less damage direct and I got cell phone service and I was able to talk to a couple of my managers. I had family up in Tampa and both my parents and my, my two brothers, they had full electricity and everything. So I made the decision to drive to Tampa that, that next day after the hurricane strictly so I could communicate because I realised how important communication was with the managers. And then, you know, being able to ask them, we need to get an assessment and try and find out from as many people as we can because we knew for a fact, seeing some of the pictures and things, the devastation that we were going to have some people displaced. And, you know, although you care about everybody and want to account for everybody, those who are displaced, we didn't know what the level of their displacement was. So communication just cannot be underestimated for your listeners about the ability to, you know, find out what's going on and then to try and communicate to everybody else.
Ed: I feel you may have just answered my final question in the in the podcast. But there's a, there's a few I want to get in before then because when we've had a conversation before Doug, you mentioned that you were surprised and also moved by the amount of support from your entire network in that, in that immediate aftermath and following. Were there any surprises, any other surprises, sorry or outcomes from the unfortunate hurricane, that the firm will be looking to develop upon in the future?
Doug: Yeah. So, you know, I think after these events, getting together with your team and doing an assessment of how you handled it, you know, and where you can be better. It occurred to me that because of the outpouring from, you know, relationships we have around the state and others. It occurred to me that people can really benefit from establishing those relationships. There were so many just good and generous people out there in the world. I can't tell you how many said, ‘hey, what do you need? How can we get to you, we’re willing to drive down’. So we tried to, with the management team identified what were the needs, immediate needs. And then we set up within our office, you know, kind of a place where we could collect food items, water, batteries, Flashlights, the things that we occurred, we wanted to get our office open and we were fortunate that our office is on the same grid as the major hospital. So our office, electricity was up the next day and, you know, we were able to then offer people to come as a refuge because, you know, when you're without electricity or anything and, you know, it's the middle of the summer and it's 90 plus degrees and you have no air conditioning and it's just oppressive heat, you know, getting out and being able to come get water or some food. You know, I think I also learned that with managers when I was up in Tampa, I think I brought back 15 cases of water, you know, whatever I could fit with my three dogs in my SUV and bring those back and then going around and with the team managers and those who had the ability, who might have had generators at their home and things to help pull together supplies and what's necessary, you know.
Probably the most meaningful thing to me. And I'll just share a little story about, you know, how much people are willing to give there was a group of us that we had a, a female lawyer here who had bought her first home probably a month before the hurricane and lived on a canal over in North Fort Myers. And, you know, she had complete flood damage, you know, 4-5 ft in her house or her house was devastated. There was a group of us that went over to help her get things out of her house and, you know, just to help her feel better, the only downside was most of the people were younger than me and whenever I would lift something, they would run over and tell me I was too old. So had to stop that immediately to let them know. But I mean, just the amount of help. So if you can set up these networks and don't be afraid to ask, right? People are again, so generous that they're willing to help out and reach out. If they weren't contacting us directly, I would get emails like, ‘what can I do? What do you need?’
Ed: It sounds just like such an amazing sense of everybody pulling together without even sort of the call going out of, you know, we need to pull together. It just, it just kind of connected and everybody did.
Doug: They did. I mean, you know, I think your question was, you know, what were their, you know, the surprises, I mean, you know, it's hard for me to say, I'm surprised by people's generosity. You know, I was shocked when I started to see the level of devastation. I think we had eight people that were, you know, completely displaced, completely, like, couldn't even go in their homes, you know. And so that was kind of shocking to me because we've lived through prior hurricanes here and, you know, nothing. It was like this and it actually may have been 12 now that I think about it. So that, that was just shocking and you know, if you look at Fort Myers Beach and the devastation, it will be changed forever. So those types of surprises, but just, you know, the whole event was, I guess surprising to me.
Ed: Yeah, I was down there in August at Fort Myers Beach and Gail and I talk quite frequently and Gail shared some pictures with me not too long ago and for me to see it and, you know, you guys have lived through it, I just have seen the pictures but there was pictures of the restaurant that I went and ate at. It's not there. It's just the stairs that go up to where the restaurant used to be. So, yeah, the devastation was difficult to describe without really having known or seen it firsthand I suppose.
Doug: We look forward to you coming back for the first time. It will be completely different, a new experience, but we will reopen all parts of our community.
Ed: I'll definitely be back for sure. Gail, I wanted to throw a question over to you and it's a slightly different approach on this one. Can you tell us how the firm or how you as a management team, what the priorities were even in regard to communicating with clients and how that process really played out? Because I suppose there has been this catastrophic event and there is, you are currently in crisis mode, but I suppose there are also things that need to be carried out in terms of business.
Gail: Yes. Excellent question and you need to be really sensitive to what's going on. So you pull your immediate, you know, social campaign and it didn't take too much. All of our team came together. It's like, what do your clients need to know right now in their personal and professional lives? And, you know, as a marketing person, you're always like, you know, give me blog posts and let's write content. I had more content than I knew what to do with and had no internet to post. But it was good because we set up a resource page we’re a resource to our chambers. You know, Doug had mentioned your networks. You know, this is when the community comes together and, you know, we're next year, 100 years in business and we're entrenched in our community. And we just, we pulled together to get out information as much as we could and to help as much as we could. We had attorneys at client's offices doing some, you know, some counselling on some legal issues. We have some attorneys doing, you know, handling some insurance claims for the, for the hurricane.
Well, not normally our daily work, you know, we're here for our community and they're just doing an amazing job and the resources are still there. You know, there's still tax implications and the FEMA 50/50 rule, I've learned so much about stuff I never knew I could. It was, you almost didn't need to do anything. And now, you know, we're still continuing to find ways to help our community and tailored efforts to so it will continue for a while.
Ed: Yeah, Doug, was there anything you wanted to add on to that?
Doug: Yeah, I mean, I found it, you know, a little interesting balancing the needs of, you know, all of our, our family members, you know, also we have a lot of local clients. So communicating with them and fulfilling all of their needs is a little different than some of the clients out of the area, you know, who are, who are not impacted. And so it's, it's really kind of a balancing act. But again, I think with communication and just being, you know, honest with people that, ‘hey, we may need a week’, you know, ‘bear with us, we'll get your services, we'll continue to service you and make sure that we get back.’ You know, and I found that, you know, and this is, I guess where I'm so proud of all of the employees and that, you know, they kind of understood it too. They wanted to get back sometimes when, you know, you have no electricity at home because it takes your mind off the devastation you have in your home, you can be in air conditioning and so logging on and responding to emails or getting some work done I think was kind of therapeutic in a way to take your mind off. You know, everything around your house. When you're looking at some of the, you know, devastation, I ended up having some roof damage at my house, but, you know, there were a lot of people that were worse off, you know, but that balancing of trying to get things done for your clients and also balancing what's the right mix with those who have suffered devastation was something that you just need to figure out. I don't know that there's kind of a golden rule or plan about how to do that because they seem to be more idiosyncratic depending on the crisis that your listeners are facing. I think, let your clients know that you will get to their work and that nothing will be happening other than we will be up and running and service is normal. And that assures them also. And I think also assures your staff that everything is going to be okay. And that's, I think the important message you want, we'll get through this, we'll get through it together.
Ed: And following on from what you just said, this could vary, it could be a wildfire, it could be a flood, it could be a hurricane, it could be a death of a major partner in the firm. There are many different crises that this applies to. So whilst we're picking on your experiences, it's just a really good example though of how you and the firm have built this community that seems to all pull together in the time of need.
Doug: I agree 100%, and knowing that other people have gone through crises and they're able to survive and get through it, I think is also, you know, uplifting to know that we will get through it.
Ed: Yeah, I think that's a very good takeaway as well. We will get through it as a good phrase to have a bit of a motto in those times. Doug, I'll go back to you on this one and then maybe Gail you might want to answer afterwards. Are there any key learnings from this that you're going to put into your processes and maybe that communication plan, the crisis communication plan that you had in place. Are you going to be producing a new one? Even though that, that the other one was only just finished?
Doug: I think the one area that, that I think we can probably improve on is um collecting data or information from people. Again, hurricanes seem to be what we face. So, you know, we get it in advance. But having in place kind of where we need to reach out to, I think is really important. And I think the other thing that kind of dovetails in that is making sure that those who are going to be on your team, understand the message and that they're the right people to convey that message. You know, I don't want to sugarcoat the devastation, but I think the way you communicate that devastation to let those who are suffering know that you've got their back that you're in control, that things will be all right. You need to convey, you know, a positive uplifting message so that we all don't sit around and just get depressed about it because that could make it worse, the effects on that. So having the right team around you making sure that they communicate in a positive, effective manner and that you just account for everybody. And I think in hindsight, we did that really well. If I'm, you know, proud of one area, I think we found a way to account, people were willing to drive by people's homes if they haven't heard from them. And I think that was, you know, important. I think within three days we had accounted for all, you know, approximately 150 employees that we had attorneys staff, everybody had been accounted for. We had actually heard from everybody.
Ed: Which is a huge positive. Gail, is there anything you want to tack onto the end of that?
Gail: Yeah, just to tack onto Doug's comment, we organically kind of reached out. I think we needed just a more organised plan to making sure that everyone's accounted for within your team or department because there are difficulties. And like another form of a relative, not in the area. Because if everybody in your area doesn't have phones, you're kind of stuck. But it was just, you know, sending out the right message working together and really knowing what your team needs as Doug said, we had so many that lost everything that we were, you know, finding clothes for attorneys that needed to do zoom hearings, we needed, housing, we needed water, we needed cleaning supplies and Doug and the team were going out with chainsaws, you know, it's, you do whatever it needs to be done to help your, you know, your personal and professional family and then the community and it was in full, in full display.
Ed: This really leads me to the last question. I think before we start closing this out and I think, Doug, I know what you're going to say. It's been mentioned a few times already. But what is, what is the one piece of advice you would give to perhaps other law firm leaders and maybe any other firms that are listening when it comes to crisis communications and planning, so they can be better prepared? And I think I know what you'll come back with but please go for it.
Doug: Yeah, I mean, hands down, care about your people. Yeah, I mean, I think if you care about your people, you will be guided in the right direction as to the decisions you make what's important and, and all those people who receive that message will come with you on that journey of trying to get through it together. And it's a real easy message at the end of the day, whether you're the managing partner of Henderson Franklin or you're somebody who started here in the mail room a month ago. We're all people at the end of the day. And I think just being guided by that when you're talking about a crisis, we're all in the same boat and there's, you know, the strength in numbers and everybody travelling in the same direction helps make those decisions and get through the process so much easier. And, you know, it's just an easy message to kind of follow. And the right thing. I mean, at the end of the day, you can't argue against being concerned about people and doing what's right by them. Ed: Absolutely, Gail, did you, did you want to at anything?
Gail: I cannot top that.
Ed: Very wise. I think Doug, and Gail, as I said at the beginning of this, I was really looking forward to recording this podcast with you both. The two of you have been brilliant to have on and it's been an absolute pleasure chatting with you over the last couple of weeks, months. Gail, a year now and more. So, thank you very much to both of you. We will, of course, keep in touch and I will come down to Fort Myers again. Thanks for coming on the podcast.
Doug: Edward, thank you for the opportunity to give our message to your listeners and thank you, I appreciate it.
Ed: Absolutely. Best of luck for the future.
Doug: Thank you.