On Monday, October 8th, my managing partner and I received a frantic text that would change our firm forever. Our founding partner was in the emergency room and it didn’t look good. We lost Steve San Filippo the next day due to heart failure.
Steve was still very active in the business and was the managing member of our financial advisory entity. For many SSF staff, including myself, he was a personal friend and mentor. To say we were devastated was an understatement.
Based on the conversations had that Monday, I knew I had to start a communications plan for the worst outcome possible…just in case. Little did I know when I went home that night, the next three days would be the darkest and most challenging days of my career. As marketers, we are the communications hub for our firms. It’s times like this when you want nothing more than to circle up in a ball of grief, but you must put on a brave face and keep it together because you have a job to do.
When I received the news at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday that Steve had passed, panic and adrenaline kicked in first. I knew from my research the night before, there is not a whole lot of information out there on how to handle a death of a partner, let alone one as beloved as Steve. I called our PR firm to give them the heads up that we were heading into crisis mode so they could be on the offensive. Our managing partner sent out a personal note to all partners the night before letting them know Steve’s status and then followed up with them around 6:00 a.m. notifying them of his passing.
Once the news starts to hit, you will get a flurry of questions about how it happened, how old they were, did they have any children, how old they are, what is going to happen to their clients and on and on. Sit down with your main spokesperson and hash out all this information. Consider how much information you are willing to share with whom and when. Create statements for internal use and external use to control the narrative that will develop.
Once I arrived to the office that morning, I pulled in my marketing team and broke the news. I could not have made it through the next week without my team. They were amazing. Find a support team for yourself to get through the hard bits. There will be hard bits and you will not see the wave of grief coming…it will just hit.
I tasked my team to start scouring through our image library for photos and videos of Steve. They prepared banners for our website and social media as well as prepared an all-black version of our logo. They also started compiling assets for a tribute video.
To prepare internally, I had admins start placing extra tissue boxes around the offices and in conference rooms. We had IT add a forum on our internal intranet where people could share their memories and photos. They held that from going live until we made the official announcement to the entire staff. One tip we did not think of that I will pass along, tell your office manager or receptionist to stock the kitchen up. Our office has a pretty good stash of food for snacks and items for a simple “in a pitch” lunch. Mourning people eat. Stock the kitchen. We got low on food and grieving people get hangry. Lesson learned.
I then locked myself in my office and started to write the client notification email and the press release. The hardest press release I had to write in my life. Writing that release was when the adrenaline ran out and the grief really took hold. I sobbed like a crazy hot mess for hours as I wrote both of those. My team just kept bringing me more tissues, coffee, and peanut butter cups.
That afternoon we pulled all staff into the main conference rooms in each of our six offices to break the news. We reminded them to keep the announcement internal as we are still notifying sensitive individuals and asked them not to share anything on social media until they see our press release hit to the public. We asked them not to comment about it to clients, as partners need to be the ones to break the news. We knew many of them would think they were helping by making such calls, but it actually has the potential to hurt an already delicate situation. We allowed anyone who needed to excuse themselves from work to head home for the day and reminded them about our Employee Assistance Program for grief counseling. We then followed up with an email from the managing partner to all staff for individuals that might be working remote.
Next, we had our client service team pull a list of Steve’s clients and divided the list up between partners and senior staff to start calling and notifying his clients personally. Breaking the news to individual clients that had been working with Steve for over 40 years again and again was not pleasant and took an emotional toll on many. I highly recommend that once all the notifications and media is handled, take time for yourself to grieve and recharge. The reality is, this whole process will exhaust you.
As the notification calls were happening, marketing created a memorial page for Steve with the announcement of his passing, details of his services, places for donations to be made in his name and a place that people could share their memories of Steve. We helped the family do a great deal of the planning and services, so we had these details. You will need to not only have a main spokesperson for the firm, but someone who can act as a liaison with the family.
By Wednesday afternoon we had all sensitive clients notified, so the general client notification email went out. We turned our logo black on our website and on social media, changed out all the banners and main home page graphic and the memorial web page went live. Thursday morning the press release hit the wire with a national distribution. We shared the press release with our international affiliation for global distribution.
After all the notifications go out, brace yourself. The next wave is the condolence calls, cards, emails, and flowers. Reporters calling for comments and more details. All those forums you set up to collect memories from people will all start streaming in to you. It can be overwhelming, so be kind to yourself.
Once you are past the condolence stage and have had the services, get time for yourself to recharge. After about a month and a half, we swapped back the logo and graphics on our website and social media. Steve is still listed on our partner page, but now his photo has in memoriam under it and links to his tribute page.
I hope you and your firm never have to experience this sadness. If it does, I hope this story and timeline of events helps give you a roadmap that I did not have myself.
- Select a main spokesperson and liaison with the family
- Gather accurate relevant information
- Create audience-appropriate messages (internal and external) with information to be shared as quickly as possible
- Advise staff to forward all queries about the deceased to designated contact person(s)
- Get office manager/receptionist to stock up on tissues and food in the kitchen
Communications Plan – Action List
- Internal – partners/employees
- Decease’s family
- Industry contacts and friends of the Firm
- Decease’s personal contacts
- Industry media
- The decease’s community
Communications Materials & Activities
- Hi-res photograph selected by the firm and approved by the family
- Internal email to partners
- Internal email to staff
- “In Memoriam” page on your website with all relevant details to point everything to
- Graphics/Statement on home page of website
- Graphics/Statement on all social media accounts
- If you have a colorful logo, consider turning it black on your website and social media
- Note on Steve’s website bio indicating his passing
- External email to Clients and Firm friends/industry communications
- Internal and external FAQ
- Press notification/statement
- Obituary (offer resources to assist the family with drafting and distributing)
- Tribute video
- Long-term plan to honor his memory at the firm
- Establish scholarship or giving fund in their memory
- Host a company-wide remembrance event
- Have HR organize internal gatherings
- Offer grief counselors and share employee assistance program information
- Ask employees to share memories of the decease via email or a forum to be compiled and shared internally and with the family
The Frequently Asked Questions that you will have to answer
These are questions that will come right out of the gate, so figure out the answers to them quickly and get everyone on the same page as fast as possible.
- What happened?
- How is the family/children?
- How old were they?
- Who is taking over what responsibilities? According to what timeline?
- What is the transition plan for direct clients, account oversight, management duties?
- What will be communicated internally and externally, and over what time period?
- How we will honor their memory and legacy?
- If they are a named partner, will the firm’s name change?
AAM Minute: Best Practices
Jennifer Cantero, Sensiba San Filippo LLP
About Jennifer Cantero
Jennifer Cantero brings more than 20 years of business and marketing experience to her role as Director of Marketing and Sustainability at Sensiba San Filippo. She is SSF’s B Corp champion, who led the firm’s B Corporation certification process, resulting in SSF becoming the first California accounting firm certified as a B Corporation. Today, Jennifer leads SSF’s B Corp Practice assisting clients with their B Corp certification journeys and sustainability stories.