10 Crisis Comms Planning Tips for Hurricane Season

Hurricane Isabel

Atlantic hurricane season starts June 1 (apparently, Ana didn’t get the memo), and U.S. National Hurricane Preparedness Week is May 24-30. If you live and work near the U.S. east or gulf coasts, or in the Caribbean, preparedness week is a good time not only to make sure that you’re prepared in general, but also that you’re prepared to conduct crisis communications in the event of a storm.

I’ve lived in those “you better be ready for hurricane season” parts of the U.S. for a few decades now, and have done my share of pre- during- and post-storm response and recovery work. Here’s what I’ve learned has to be done every year:

  1. Update your contacts – Make sure that all your important internal organization contacts, as well as the external ones – stakeholders, special-interest groups and news media – are current. If your information has changed, pass it along.
  2. Update your apps – There are many useful mobile apps that would make fine additions to the ol’ crisis toolbox. I reviewed several last year, all of which are free.
  3. Know where to get the most current facts – Traditional news media is great, but social media has the advantage of mobility – no matter where you go, you take those sources of information with you.
    • If you live near a military facility, they’re great to follow on social media, because military units have personnel safety, equipment protection and other requirements at certain points pre- and post-landfall – I live a few miles from the world’s largest navy base, and they routinely pass the word via social media about how weather affects their operations and people. Local utilities, local and regional Red Cross and regional FEMA accounts are essential for post-storm updates. Just a few examples of decision makers and groups who are keyed-in to weather to do their jobs (links are all to organizations in my neck of the woods).
    • I follow city government accounts, the state department of emergency management and the national hurricane centerAmtrak and the local freight rail company give good infrastructure updates, as well as my local airport, the port authority and regional Coast Guard office.
    • Twitter is my go-to, because I can add all these contacts, and more, into a list and focus on just that information. If you’ve never worked with Twitter lists, know that when you create a list and add contacts, those users are informed of that action, including the name of the list, so keep it professional (I’ve been added to a few, um, interestingly named lists).
    • Some U.S. emergency management organizations allow users to receive mobile alerts via FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert & Warning System, and here’s a list of nationwide providers.
    • If you live in the south, like I do, you should already know about The Waffle House Index!
  4. Inform employees – Even if you go through hurricane season every year, assume that some of your employees (and their families) are unaware of your organization’s hurricane plans. Get the message out now so they’re not caught off guard when a storm is a few days out and you start enacting shutdown or continuity of operations plans. If you really want to go the extra mile, give your employees this great new informational tool from the U.S. National Hurricane Center – explains to the reader everything he or she needs to know to understand official hurricane communication from the center. Give two copies to any employee you’ve ever overheard planning a hurricane party instead of evacuating.
  5. Inform the public – Preparedness week is a good time to get your organization’s message out to the public regarding what you’ll do in the event of a storm — and you don’t just have to be part of a first responder or recovery organization. If you are a major employer in your area, for example, use preparedness week to talk about how you’ll take care of employees and their families in the event of a storm, or how your organization helps the community during recovery operations. Storm impacts affect infrastructure across the board, so preparedness week is a good time to give tips based on your organization’s subject matter expertise.
    • At a loss for messages? Think about how a complete (or seriously degraded) stop to your organization’s operations would affect the public, and how you would go about bringing those services back online – then tell people that story!
  6. Dust off the media training – Identify your organization’s spokespeople now, and give refresher training on how to conduct interviews. Whether you work for a big box store that sells generators or for a search and rescue organization, hurricane season sees the media hungry for more related stories than many other disasters – they have to fill time in the days leading up to a storm, so they want variety. In addition, as far as disasters go, hurricanes are one of the easiest for which you can prepare many talking points in advance (see above). Do that now!
      • Anecdotally, tropical storms and hurricanes seem to be magnets for misinformation being spread via social media. No idea why this is the case, but be cognizant of it – no one likes to get duped, so consider the source before forwarding those “too good to be true” bits of information.
      • If your organization has a role in public health and safety, include some risk communications in your training:
  7. Have a social media plan – Managing social media during hurricanes can be a full-time job for one or more people at some organizations. Gauge what you’ll need in a worst-case scenario (people, equipment, logistical support, etc.) and use what’s in the bullets above to build your social media plan. If you regularly schedule routine business tweets, turn them off during your pre-storm preps! There’s nothing more face-palm than day-to-day, “evergreen” information all of a sudden popping up in a feed that’s been transmitting emergency information during a crisis. Sometimes, overlooking scheduled tweets is much worse than face-palm.
  8. Expect the unexpected – I wrote about resiliency in crisis communications (exactly one year ago!), and here’s what I’ve learned from being affected by quite a few hurricanes and tropical storms – have what you need ready to go now so that you can work from anywhere. Keep the “go kit” stocked. More at the above link, but a piece of gear that many people overlook? A way to power your devices from anywhere. I keep a power inverter that accepts both three-prong AC plugs and USB cables, and plugs into a vehicle power socket – cars and trucks still have power when the local grid goes down.
  9. Be ready for joint operations – If you think you’ll need to collaborate with any other organizations before, during or after a hurricane, have some kind of joint information plan ready now. When you’re updating your contacts ask the “how might we work together?” question.
  10. SMEM and VOST volunteer opportunities – How can you help during storms if you or your organization doesn’t have a role in response or recovery? Some organizations recruit volunteers to help with social media emergency management using the volunteer operations support team concept, so be on the lookout for those opportunities if you have the skill set and desire.

Image: Hurricane Isabel, 2003. Non-copyrighted image courtesy NASA. Original image at http://goo.gl/bcr8ZX ; copyright information at http://goo.gl/ANMAH1

 

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