Houston & Hurricane Harvey: crisis communications in a natural disaster

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Just weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, I moved to Houston. About a month later, I was one of the millions of Houstonians who attempted to evacuate in anticipation of Hurricane Rita. In 2008, I “hunkered down” during Hurricane Ike. In 2015, I watched my neighborhood flood during the Memorial Day flood, and then again in 2016 during the Tax Day floods.

Collectively, my coworkers and I have experienced historic hurricanes, tropical storms, flooding disasters and man-made crises like the BP oil spill. Together, we've supported local nonprofits, government and our clients in these disasters, and helped our community bounce back each time. My point? I've seen many natural disasters. But I have never seen anything like Hurricane Harvey's devastation across the Gulf Coast.

When a natural disaster occurs, first responders and local governments take the lead in messaging and communications. Non-essential businesses close. Local news channels often pre-empt programming to run continuous coverage of the disaster. Journalists, crisis communications and public relations leads leap into 24/7 on-call status to support the station, clients and the community at large.

In a natural disaster, your clients – and your community – are relying on your expertise in crisis and disaster communications. Being organized, thoughtful and flexible are key to helping everyone navigate the crisis.

Prepare your team and yourself

  • Your team is your No. 1 asset. Prioritize the health, safety and well-being of your team before anything else.

  • During or after the natural disaster, ensure your team is managing their own personal and safety needs. Ask them to advise you on when/if they can be an asset to you and clients.

  • If you have advance warning that a natural disaster might occur, make advance preparations. If you can, send key team members to remote locations outside the potential disaster zone.

  • Prep your team for a rapidly changing working environment. It's likely you'll be working quickly and closely with volunteers, vendors and others from multiple disciplines, backgrounds and with varying levels of experience.

  • Make sure you have cell phone numbers and alternate email addresses for all clients, colleagues and contacts.

  • Plan to work in an unstable environment with unreliable internet access and without power.

Prepare your clients

  • Everything on the calendar changes. Proactively evaluate anything planned and/or scheduled. Pause planned social content. Pause ads. Postpone or cancel events. Automated emails or scheduled social media posts not ordinarily viewed as offensive become insensitive and unwelcome during a time of personal and community crisis.

  • Prepare media relations leads and spokespeople — both on your team and clients — for an overwhelming volume of inquiries.

  • Remind your team and your clients that you don't have to run with every media inquiry or opportunity. Messaging during a crisis or disaster is carefully planned and monitored. It's okay to pass on something if it's not right for your client.

  • Now is the time that the sophisticated media training your team and clients participated in comes into play. If you haven’t done intensive media training, prep your clients with mock interviews and never underestimate the power of good, concise talking points.

Check in and stay updated

  • Check in with your team regularly to ensure everyone's safety and personal well-being. During Harvey, my team called the roll twice a day via group text. Nothing fancy, just an “I'm still safe” or “thumbs up” emoji works.

  • Be proactive with your clients and check in regularly. If there's a need that you can address, do it. The rules have changed, so don’t limit your activity and efforts to the pre-disaster scope of services.

  • Monitor conversation on social and traditional media. Watch for trends. Adapt your crisis management strategy and tactics as needed.

  • Keep updated client status information in a cloud service like Quip or Evernote where everyone on your team can easily access information.

  • Protect your people and your clients from exploitation and exhaustion. It's okay to pass on a media inquiry, especially if it would negatively affect your client or a team member's personal safety or well-being. During Harvey, my team declined national media opportunities for both these reasons. And you know what? The opportunities waited for our clients.

Mobilize

  • If you have advance warning, reach out to local disaster relief and community organizations before disaster strikes. Find out what they need and sketch out a plan for support.

  • Identify ways your clients can help their community with donations of products, services or cash during or after the disaster or crisis. Everyone has something to give, loan or share if they wish to do so.

  • Stay connected in your neighborhood. Use your skills as a volunteer communications counselor or do something different, like serving meals at a shelter.

Counsel wisely

  • Good hearts and bad ideas abound in times of crisis or natural disaster. As a publicist or crisis communications lead, you're paid to give wise counsel on bad ideas, even when they come from good hearts.

  • Natural disasters and crises breed compassion which generates philanthropic goodwill. Remind nonprofit clients that stewardship and transparency are critical when dealing with new audiences.

Prepare for a marathon, not a sprint

  • Natural disasters can strike quickly but the relief and recovery efforts are often quite lengthy. Manage your pace. Help your team and clients manage their pace.

Each of these points is easier said than done in a natural disaster. Having a plan that you’ve mapped out in advance and reviewed with your team and clients is essential. You will face countervailing obligations. Establishing priorities in advance will help you, your team and your clients block, tackle and move forward.

We Texans and our neighbors along the Gulf Coast, from Louisiana to Florida, are resilient. If you want to help, I encourage you to make a donation to a worthy organization focused on relief and recovery efforts. However, nothing beats the power of neighbors helping neighbors and teams working together. Teamwork wins every time.

Originally written for the Forbes Agency Council