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Ten Crisis Communications Lessons Learned from Natural Disasters

This article was originally published in 2005. We revised it in 2008 following the devastation from Hurricane Ike for the article, "In the eye of the storm: Ten PR lessons learned from Hurricane Ike," which was published in Public Relations Tactics in 2008. We now have reviewed and revised it again in advance of the landfall of Hurricane Patricia.

Hurricane-Patricia-NASA.jpgThe intent of this article is to focus on lessons that we all can learn. Independently, they serve as a great checklist to add to your crisis response plan. Together, they can serve as guiding principles for your organization's crisis communications philosophy.

1. 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. The best way to protect your organization's reputation is to first stop hurting people.

2. Remember that every decision has consequences. Everything your organization says and does during its crisis response will have intended and unintended consequences. In the case of Hurricane Rita, the decision to announce evacuations lead to unprecedented traffic congestion, which led to gasoline shortages, which led to thousands of motorists being stranded, which led to hundreds of cases of heat-related illness. 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.

3. 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 mantra. 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. The public's trust can only be earned if your credibility remains intact.

4. Assume you won't be able to communicate. Most organizations have grown complacent about the power of the cell phone to reach key personnel 24x7. But virtually any natural disaster will quickly make cell phones useless. In the case of Hurricane Rita, many Houston cell phones could not receive calls up to 72 hours before the storm arrived. Having a couple million people simultaneously using their cell phones while stuck in traffic will do that. To really be prepared, assume that traditional methods of communication will not work and examine all available options. For instance, the New Orleans Mayor's office was able to resume telephone service via Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). According to the Wall Street Journal, their first incoming call -- two days after Hurricane Katrina hit -- was from the President of the United States. The feasibility of using social networking and Internet-based messaging services, satellite phones, methods or recharging batteries, CB and Ham Radios, and Web-based wikis all should be explored beforehand. The cost of outfitting all crisis response team members with a redundant cell phone ($300 to $600 annually for each) might seem like a waste -- until the moment you need them.

5. 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 about 100 miles from your facility. For a fee, many hotels would be willing to store necessary communications infrastructure. 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.

6. Recognize your limits. Nobody likes to relinquish control, particularly when you believe to your core that nobody can do the job as well. But knowing when it is better to step aside and take a supporting role is an art that has saved the reputations of many brands and businesses. Don't delude yourself into thinking you can do it all, particularly in a crisis, which has 24x7 demands. You can't.

7. Nothing says "concern" and "control" like placing your leader at the scene. Of course he or she has their hands full, but their physical presence is the loudest statement your organization can make regarding how concerned you really are. As the person responsible for protecting the organization's reputation, demand that senior leadership be on the ground.

8. Be the first to report your bad news. If everything worked the way it was supposed to, there wouldn't be a crisis, would there? So step forward and acknowledge that something went wrong, explain what you know about it and describe the specific steps being taken to correct it. This helps you define the story, rather than having others define it for you. 

9. Monitor traditional and social media. How was it possible that federal authorities were apparently not aware that the situation at the New Orleans Convention Center was spiraling out of control 48 hours after the levies broke? Moreover, how was it possible that FEMA was apparently unaware that the levies had broken until Tuesday morning, even though the National Weather Service reported the break 36 hours beforehand? 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 social media. In addition to helping you keep tabs on developments that you may not otherwise be aware of, monitoring the media is necessary to rapidly respond to inaccuracies and 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 to shift the direction of the crisis and to use the event as an opportunity 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?" Often, you will find that your organization may have subtly contributed to the crisis by allowing itself to stray from or be distracted from its mission.

DPK Public Relations offers crisis communications planning, response and recovery services and can be reached at 214-432-7556. 

Check out our other articles about crisis communications planning, response and recovery here: 

Dan Keeney
(832) 467-2904
(832) 467-2909
Author: Dan Keeney
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