Law Firm Crisis Planning and Management: Lessons Learned from #Sandy

In my last post, I summarized a crisis communications program presented by the Philadelphia Bar Association which included tips like remembering that you are always “on”, never saying “no comment” to the media, considering all of your audiences and the importance of having a crisis communications plan in general. But crisis management really hit home recently.

As an East Coast marketing and public relations company owner, I’m just one of many who had to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. As with every life experience, I try to find the lessons that can be gleaned. As I sit here typing this blog, I have the television news on and I’m looking at the devastation that has plagued New York and New Jersey including my childhood summer hometown of Sea Isle City. I am reminded of how lucky many of us were but also need to learn from the situation that we and many of our clients, including law firms, found ourselves in.

Life Without Power

Sleeping in a 40 degree home with blankets, pillows and a bed, while not ideal, is still better than being homeless. Many of us in Bucks County, Pennsylvania had to endure relatively cold nights – yet we were still much luckier than the folks who lost their homes along the coast. I was thankful that we had a generator to power most of our home during the day, but can’t help but wonder what we would do if the power was out longer and we were unable to get gas. I was able to cook in a Crockpot. Will I be able to do the same over a fire? Perhaps it’s time for this metropolitan-raised woman to learn some fireside cooking skills.

On the other hand, a business without power is far less a business for that time and the losses can be devastating. At Furia Rubel, we were without power for a week. Luckily, our Outlook is cloud hosted so — when we had connectivity — we were able to check and respond to emails contact clients, update our calendars, reschedule meetings and the like. While most staff members were able to access email, I even had the experience of the mobile tower going down which made for a wild ride. Our server, however, is local with off-site back-ups. The problem, though, is that restoration of a full back up can take days which we did not have. So the solution was to power the server with a generator, copy the critical files to an external hard drive, upload those files to an off-site FTP, provide staff with access information, then create a system to capture and save new files to the existing server once the power came back on. While this system worked, it was certainly not ideal.

Solution Possibilities

One solution is to host all files in the cloud. This can be a very expensive proposition for a small business and those businesses with many terabytes of data. Another solution is to save information to Dropbox  but that’s certainly not a way to run an enterprise – it is something that could be put in place in advance of a possible power outage. But do we always have time to prepare? In fact, Furia Rubel was prepared for one or two days without power but certainly not a week. And then, what are the solutions in the case of fire or other unplanned catastrophic occurrences? Another solution that I discussed with a legal administration colleague, Gil Marquez, with the personal injury law firm, Feldman Shepherd, is to back-up data using a service like Mozy.com . These are all solutions we will be exploring in the short-term.

Transportation/Travel

The hurricane also shut down airports, rail lines, roads and bridges. Getting from point A to Z became impossible for some. That was capped off with the loss of power and lack of gasoline deliveries which also led to gas rationing – the likes of which we have not seen since the 1970’s. Laura Powers , the Vice President of Furia Rubel, and I were scheduled to speak at the Legal Marketing Association (LMA) Northeast Chapter Regional Conference in Boston a few days after the storm. We had also purchased tickets for the Acela train from Philadelphia to Boston. Lo and behold, the train was not running due to the hurricane so we had to drive and spend an extra night in Boston (which we made the best of with a great dinner at Mistral and a show at Shear Madness). However, what about the individuals and business that are still affected by the lack of power and/or petrol at the pumps? In fact, Laura’s mother was concerned about having enough gas (and having access to gas) to get to work, even with her Hybrid Prius.

Solution Possibilities

Moving to a more Internet-based environment is only a small part of the solution. Perhaps Laura and I could have hosted a live webinar with our LMA friends (however, we would have missed out on a great deal of excellent programming and networking). Perhaps companies with the infrastructure built in for people to work from home would have been more productive than they might have been otherwise. Then again, perhaps there was not a solution for many who lost homes and businesses.

Social Media

Social media tools became a source of personal and professional communications for everyone at our company. We created a Facebook conversation where we were able to check in on one another’s safety, determine if power had been restored, discuss urgent office matters and strategize on pending client deliverables. Social media was also the only way some of us were able to get news and information from the outside world during and immediately after the storm. We were even able to inform clients and colleagues that our office was closed and able to share important contact information in lieu of the office being closed.

Solution Possibilities

It is important to incorporate social media tools into a company’s corporate and crisis communications mix. While some people prefer to remain virtually anonymous in the worlds of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and the like, social media tools are here to stay and can be put to great use on a regular basis and certainly in times of crisis.

Crisis Messaging

While Furia Rubel was without power, it was important for us to communicate that fact to our clients and colleagues. One of the things we did was to use our content-managed website to post a message on our homepage – letting viewers know that the office was closed and how to reach us. Since our email was up and running, we emailed each client to let them know about our power outage and how to reach us in the alternative. What we didn’t do was request a response stating that the email had been received.

Solution Possibilities

While Furia Rubel had a plan in place for communicating our power outage with clients, we did not factor in that many of them could not receive emails. We are now updating our crisis communications plan, which all companies should revisit on an annual basis, to include mass text messages to our client liaisons along with home telephone numbers to be used only in emergencies – food for thought for next time.  Another thing to remember is if you can forward your telephone calls to another number, you should.

I welcome your thoughts and lessons as they relate to crisis planning and disaster recovery as we should all have something to learn from this hurricane and the many other natural and unnatural disasters that have beleaguered individuals and businesses throughout centuries.