Over the past several months we have lived through several major natural and man-made disasters that have both disrupted and mobilized entire communities. Preparations for securing homes and evacuations went well in some places and failed in others. Rescue and recovery efforts saw the best successes where communication channels were available, open and thoughtful.
For this issue of Marketing Coach, we researched how communicators tackled the job of disseminating information about Florida's Hurricane Irma, and investigated activity surrounding other major storms and disasters. This lead to this issue's insights and advice on how to communicate through the chaos.
There are strong building blocks and lessons to be learned for all of us who might be called upon in times of crisis to calm fears, relay information and restore trust.
The Comm Before the Storm
Florida Utilities Kept the Public "Illuminated" During Hurricane Irma
When Hurricane Irma tore its way through Florida last September, millions of people were left without power. Power companies in the Sunshine State needed to bolster communications efforts to keep customers informed and prepared in the days leading up to and following this historic storm. Given Florida's propensity for big storms each year, electric utilities there have established protocols for communicating with customers, employees and stakeholders to help them prepare, alert them to power outages and provide regular updates on recovery efforts. Communicators for Florida's utilities deployed the use of multiple channels, from social media to mobile phone alerts, to customer emails and radio advertising and others, to keep the public informed.
One key component of mounting an effective communications strategy was having pre-drafted messages for landfall predictions. This allowed for the swift relay of information on restoration efforts and safety tips to the public throughout all stages of the storm.
Another method used to manage expectations and keep people safe was the distribution of an automated message via home phone (for those who had signed up for this service) that advised customers to prepare to be without power, and what they needed to do to safeguard their family and property. Additionally, utilities throughout the state shared this same information with local media 72 hours, 48 hours and 24 hours before the storm - as well as during the storm - to be sure that those who may not have heard the automated message still received the information.
To ensure that communications were handled both quickly and accurately, some utilities employed a series of news briefings pre- and post-landfall. Media teams were assigned to geographic areas for localized outreach. Additionally, utilities with the resources to do so assigned staff to specific government organizations to interface with, in order to share emergency information and updates on service restoration progress. Doing this allowed for pertinent information to be relayed to customers in specific areas in a coordinated, simultaneous effort.
What worked best during this storm was to maintain a uniform voice. Whenever or wherever a customer or stakeholder was inquiring, reading or listening, the message of restoration and safety needed to remain central, up-to-date and relevant. This disciplined approach allowed customers to receive reliable information and helped avoid confusion or mixed messages.
Overall, having a deliberate and disciplined schedule of communication was essential to successfully handle a crisis of this magnitude.
Best Practices in Emergency Communications
Communications - both media relations and public outreach - take on an entirely different level of urgency when you are dealing with emergency situations. In fact, how you relay information to the media and the public may literally be a matter of life and death.
In recent months, we've seen the best and the worst of how public and private organizations communicate with the public during both natural and man-made disasters. When Hurricane Harvey set its sights on Houston, the city's emergency service agencies conducted a tightly coordinated evacuation effort making full use of local broadcast media and social media to keep citizens informed.
When faced with Hurricane Irma, utility communications teams in Florida utilized best practices by providing emergency preparedness information to customers in the days leading up to the storm via broadcast media, social media, phone and text. These organizations continued to provide service status updates and important information throughout the restoration process.
While I was putting the final touches on this issue of Marketing Coach, the New York and tristate areas were preparing for a Nor'easter. Well before the storm hit, I received an alert from Con Edison via email that linked me directly to its online Outage Recovery Guide that gives service recovery updates, allows customers to report and track outages, and relays helpful safety and storm preparedness tips. I was also offered the opportunity to sign up for text alerts, for which I readily registered.
Conversely, when a worker mistakenly alerted the public that a missile was headed towards Honolulu, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency took nearly 40 minutes to inform the public of the mistake. This slow response and the ensuing public outcry revealed the agency's inability to effectively relay life-or-death information to the public as well as how unprepared its constituents were for this type of event.
Having looked at how events like these unfold, here are some best practice ideas for communicating during an emergency situation. Above all, the time to create a crisis communications plan for your company or community is now!
Assess your resources, your operations and the level of outreach you need to do based on the anticipated severity of the situation
Formalize which individuals are responsible for communicating to distinct audiences; if possible, assign leadership and communications professionals to serve on your crisis communications team
Organize team calls so that everyone has the same information and can hear and contribute to questions on each other's minds
Hold drills to prepare for various emergency situations so that your staff understands each person's role
Secure backup generators or an independent power source to ensure your website will be operational during the emergency
Take full advantage of social media such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate with your various audiences
Offer the public the option to receive SMS/Text with an active effort to sign up and opt in for regular updates leading up to, during and after the emergency until power is fully restored
Be sure to consistently update any necessary websites as feasible
If possible, let people know in advance what type of service disruptions they can expect and offer advice on how they can prepare.
Tools for Keeping Connected in a Worst-Case Scenario
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico experienced unprecedented devastation. The ensuing relief efforts were severely complicated by the lack of coordination between the local government, federal government and the many non-profit organizations attempting to deliver aid. While strained relations between U.S. federal agencies and local leaders were blamed, an equally overwhelming barrier in the way of delivering the help people needed was the wholesale destruction of the island's communications systems.
Regardless of how comprehensive an emergency communications plan is, it is all for naught if you don't have the infrastructure necessary for basic communications.
Fortunately, there are new technologies specifically designed to help emergency communications teams at the federal, state and local levels prepare for and keep connected during even the worst scenarios. Below is a selection of tech tools to check out, depending on your needs and the types of emergencies that are relevant to your geographic area and/or organization's mission.
1. SimulationDeck - This software is designed to help people train on disseminating timely, accurate and coordinated public information during emergencies. As we saw with the Hawaiian missile alert, incorrect or confusing information shared on Social Media can be impossible to stop once the information starts to spread. SimulationDeck mimics what happens online and in the media during an emergency, by emulating various social media platforms, allowing agencies to develop better ways for creating messages and selecting platforms to use in the event of a crisis. Visit simulationdeck.com for more details and information.
2. iDawg - Currently in development, iDawg - Intelligent Deployable Augmented Wireless Gateway - works with software, called edgeware, that connects devices and information and helps with machine-to-machine communication. In a worst-case emergency scenario iDawg will maintain communication between different devices without relying on cell towers or Internet networks. To find out more read this article from Emergency Services Insider.
3. FEMA App - In 2016, the Obama administration supported FEMA in updating its tools for public outreach during emergencies. One of those updates was an emergency preparedness app that outlets such as USA Today recently recommended for use by those in the path of Hurricane Irma. The app allows users to receive pre-scheduled safety and preparedness tips, including testing smoke detectors, practicing a fire escape plan, updating emergency kits and replacing smoke alarm batteries. It also provides a customizable checklist of emergency supplies, maps of open shelters and open recovery centers, and tips on how to survive natural and manmade disasters. The latest version of the app is available for Apple devices in the App Store and for Androids in the Google Play store. You can read more about the app here.
4. Emergency.lu - Microsoft was one of the partnering entities with the government of Luxembourg to develop emergency.lu, a satellite that can be rapidly deployed to a disaster zone within hours in order to bring high-quality Internet connectivity and low-bandwidth versions of Skype and Lync to areas where regular Internet connections have gone down. To find out more, visit emergency.lu.
5. TV White Space - Microsoft initially partnered with the Philippines government to leverage unused television channels, known as TV White Space, to enable connectivity in areas that lost Internet. Using TV White Space, government and nongovernment agencies coordinating relief efforts, as well as citizens impacted, can have access to Skype. Microsoft most recently used the technology in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Find out more about how TV White Space was used for the Puerto Rico relief effort here at Microsoft's blog.
Whether you handle communications for a business, or work for a government agency or non-profit charged with public safety, no one will care if crisis communications is in your stated job description. When an incident occurs, the organization, the media and the public will be looking to those charged with communications to keep them informed and help them navigate to safety. We have a responsibility and an opportunity to serve as a calm and reliable voice during tumultuous times.
As we look to the year ahead, I expect that the arsenal of technology and telecommunications tools to support our work will continue to expand and improve. Let's keep each other informed about what we need, what is working and how we can collaborate.
Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications, Inc. helps companies build reputations and differentiate in a competitive market through thought leadership, public education, issues management, content strategy, and strategic communications. To find out how ICCC can help you and your company build your reputation contact firstname.lastname@example.org, call 212-399-0026 or visit www.ivycohen.com.