This is  a longer version of the article published in PR Tactics in November 2008.
Crisis communication planning, response and recoveryMy Houston-based clients and I stayed up all night on Friday, September 12th. They were experiencing their own private hell courtesy of Hurricane Ike – hour after hour of 110 mile per hour winds that made their homes groan and sucked windows out of their office buildings, torrential rain and flooding, all in an eerie darkness.

I was 300 miles north in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, safely away from Ike’s ravages. But as a remote member of several crisis communications teams, I had assets others did not, such as electricity and Internet access.

Ike originally was expected to make landfall around the far less populated area of Corpus Christi. When the computer models began to change on Wednesday, September 10th, we alerted clients to begin monitoring the news for updates. Within the next 12 hours, the other computer models zeroed in on Houston as well. Shortly thereafter, coastal residents in and around Galveston Island were encouraged to evacuate.

Knowing that clients were focused on their businesses, I monitored the various news sources and used Twitter and e-mail to ensure clients could make informed decisions. By Thursday morning, September 11th, Houston TV stations had scrapped their normal programming and started wall-to-wall hurricane coverage. My clients decided to release all but essential employees early and run on a skeletal staff Thursday afternoon and Friday.

From the Dallas area, I monitored all four Houston TV stations via the Web and made sure clients got the message. A few typical Twitter dispatches included:

  • “Live news conference: Texas EMS call storm surge from Hurricane Ike a "surge tsunami." 11:43 AM September 11, 2008.”
  • “Lesson learned - helicopter shots show gasoline tanker trucks converging on Houston area gas stations. Great execution! 12:13 PM September 11, 2008.” 
  • “Helicopter shots show police escorting ambulances into Galveston to evacuate critical patients. Northbound lanes stopped. 12:17 PM September 11, 2008”
  • “Judge Emmett: "If you are not in a surge zone, stay where you are. Ride it out and let others who are in danger get out." 12:43 PM September 11, 2008.”

The Houston area learned a lot from the chaos that preceded Hurricane Rita in 2005. Panic, poor communication and intergovernmental bickering had prompted millions of residents to clog roads out of the city. Coastal residents in the most danger found their evacuation routes impassable. Gas stations were quickly drained and countless cars ran out of gas, leaving thousands stranded at the roadside.

This time was different. Through a coordinated effort, residents inland hunkered down, giving coastal residents a clear route out. And the National Weather Service helped the evacuation by issuing what is already an infamous warning:

“Persons not heeding evacuation orders in single-family, one- or two-story homes may face certain death.”

The clarity of that communication probably saved hundreds if not thousands of lives.

Most in the Houston area lost power shortly after Ike made landfall early Saturday morning. Nonetheless, the city’s TV stations continued streaming live on the Web and dispatches through Twitter could be received and sent via cell phones. It proved to be a valuable information lifeline, alerting recipients not to use water and stay off the roads.

Later on Saturday, people emerged from their homes to find wind damage to homes and businesses, trees down, streets impassable because of flooding, shortages of gasoline and no power. Those who had generators found their homes being used by the entire neighborhood to recharge cell phones. Those with the foresight to stock up on extra propane tanks became the ad hoc cooks for everyone on the block – spending hour after hour grilling meat before it went bad in powerless refrigerators.

Slowly, power was restored and businesses reopened. But with more than one million homes still without power a week after the storm, employees were distracted, exhausted and wishing for simple comforts.

Lessons that everyone in the PR community can apply include:

1. Encourage every employee to have a family crisis response plan. In a crisis, employees quickly prioritize and family appropriately takes precedence. We observed that employees who had a plan for what to do and where to go were able to balance the personal and professional responsibilities. Those without a family crisis plan quickly abandoned their work responsibilities.

2. Don’t sugar coat the facts. The dire prediction of “certain death” from the National Weather Service was highly persuasive. Having access to simply worded and accurate information will set realistic expectations. I received a call from Petri Darby, APR at 9 a.m. Saturday morning. His home had withstood nine full hours of hurricane force winds and he wanted to know how much longer it would continue. I clicked to the weather map and gave him the good news and the bad news – the storm would pass in the coming hour, but there could be tornadoes. In any crisis response, straightforward information must flow.

3. Maintain multiple redundant communication methods. Many organizations have grown complacent believing that the cell phone will reach key personnel 24x7. To really be prepared, assume that traditional methods of communication will not work and examine all available options. In addition to Twitter, explore the feasibility of satellite phones, methods of recharging batteries, CB and Ham Radios and Web-based wikis to keep information flowing.

4. In the aftermath, deal with human suffering first. Swift and immediate action is necessary to end the misery associated with the crisis. Until then, all communication should be focused on accomplishing that goal.

5. Every decision has consequences. Everything your organization says and does during its crisis response will have intended and unintended consequences. Only through careful planning and extensive work on crisis scenarios can your organization fully anticipate all the likely and less-than-likely consequences of its actions. But never underestimate the importance of asking, "What if," during crisis communication planning and in the midst of response. I know that a lot more Houston families will ask, “What if the power is out for two weeks?” before the next big storm.

6. Action and communication must be in alignment. Do what you know to be right. Say what you know to be true. You will only get in trouble if you stray from that simple principle. If you say you are doing everything possible to bring the situation under control -- even though your CEO remains on vacation -- it's not going to play in Peoria. If you say you are fully cooperating while your attorney files papers to seek an injunction, you will lose credibility. Align your actions and your words.

7. Maintain fully operational offsite facilities. Even if your organization just has one facility, you must maintain the ability to quickly ramp up crisis communications operations from an alternate location in case your facility is inoperable, inaccessible or destroyed. Reflecting on the latest natural and manmade disasters, our recommendation is that this alternate crisis communications facility be located at least 100 miles from your facility. You may also consider dispersing communications tools to various members of your crisis communications response team to store at their homes in waterproof containers. The key is to have redundant systems in place and maintain the capacity to be operational within minutes.

8. Nothing says "concern" and "control" like placing your leader at the scene. Even as the storm made landfall and most of her city was under water, the mayor of Galveston made herself available for interviews. The physical presence of a leader is the loudest statement your organization can make regarding how concerned you really are. Demand that senior leadership be on the ground.

9. Monitor traditional and new media coverage. In the midst of a crisis, one or more people must be assigned to monitor the coverage of traditional print and broadcast media as well as new media, such as Twitter and blogs. In addition to helping you keep tabs on developments that you may not otherwise be aware of, monitoring the media is necessary to ensure your actions are aligned with the public's interest.

10. Constantly search for ways to turn the story positive. At some point, you will be able use your crisis response to illustrate what your organization is all about. Sometimes, this can come early and helps you to quickly neutralize the crisis. Other times, it has to wait. At DPK Public Relations, we are big believers that your organization's mission statement plays a critical role in helping you make the shift toward image building. The question that must be asked is, "How do we make progress toward that mission from where we are right now?"