September 19, 2017

Communicating before, during and after a crisis is critical – whether that means the survival of your business or the survival of lives or both. The recent forces of nature with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma remind us what good communication can and should look like – especially when it’s a matter of life and death.

What successes can we take away from the recent hurricane communications?

Be Prepared – In both Texas and Florida, local and state officials were ready in advance. Perhaps because of their states’ unique relevance to hurricanes, or perhaps because of the early warning by meteorologists, in both cases government and civil service officials were ready early to address challenges including preparedness, evacuation, safety, and recovery.

Be Proactive – Although it may have felt preemptive in some areas, the reality is weather (and any other crisis) is unpredictable. Leaders were far out in front of these storms, communicating to their citizens days and weeks prior to landfall. Their proactive efforts helped most people evacuate safely even as the storm paths shifted.

Speak to the Facts – From local civic and safety responders, to city mayors and including the Governors, the focus was on the facts – the potential for impact, the areas of greatest concern, the best ways to leave, when and why. By doing so, they established expectations and managed them well. Even when the facts were unknown or changing rapidly, the public officials acknowledged that and kept moving. Using relevant analogies (such as “this will be at least as strong as Hurricane Andrew”) helped people understand the facts and gauge the risk for themselves.

Repeat, Repeat, and Repeat Again – With enough voices via multiple channels delivering the same information over and over again, residents were well-aware and able to act accordingly. From press conferences, to text alerts and voice messages, travel advisories on highways, and even through public school systems, the messages of preparedness, evacuation and safety were everywhere and impossible to ignore.

Follow Through – When the immediate crisis has passed, there is still much to be done for recovery and relief. Follow through meant citizens knew when to expect help, power, and a sense of the new normal that will be established.

There is one other important thing to note about the success of communications in the face of Hurricane’s Harvey and Irma: the role of the news media. The news media provided the largest vehicle for the delivery of important information and they are a tremendous resource to have during a crisis.

National news coverage, like The Weather Channel, was instrumental in covering the scope of the storms and the disaster to the greater audience of a nation. Their coverage meant people away from impact could donate and volunteer in ways that were most meaningful. At the same time, the local news teams were a critical resource for getting the most relevant and immediate information to the people within specific areas. Residents relied on these sources to make real-time decisions and to know what was to expect in the hours and days ahead.

As always, social media played a significant role in good ways and bad. Local channels have a base of followers across Twitter, etc. and they were able to use those connections even when cable/satellite TV access was down. On the other hand, there were plenty of “social mediarologists” making reckless predictions and recommendations.

It is far easier to ignore the misinformation – and to act most appropriately – when there is an abundance of accurate and timely information coming from legitimate and knowledgeable sources. Each time, we all get better at this.