Brandon and I spent decades preparing for and responding to all manner of critical incidents and disasters as federal public information officers. When we weren’t preparing or responding, we were teaching others to prepare and respond. When we weren’t preparing or responding or teaching others to prepare and respond, we were getting phone calls, emails and visits from folks seeking our advice about how to prepare and respond. And it didn’t stop once our service to the Republic had concluded … in fact we were asked so much we decided to start a blog about it and eventually start a business around it.
But you know what only a handful of people have thought to ask us about in all those years … how do you recover from critical incidents and disaster?
Preparing and responding are only two parts of a three-part dance called resiliency. If the plan for an organization, community or company is to carry on after disaster, kicking ass in the preparation and response phase only keeps them standing upright – to move forward and past the event, there needs to be a communication strategy for recovery.
The strategies I advocate are simple and largely the same regardless of the nature of the catastrophe or event. The tactics and tools vary based on community makeup and preferences, but the goal remains the same:
For professional communicators, this means ensuring the community continues to understand their role and your organization’s role in preventing future loss of life, protecting property, safeguarding the environment, rebuilding and maintaining infrastructure and getting back to normal.
To that end, consider these 5 strategies:
Be Consistent: I can’t remember writing a comms plan, or a blog post about comms plans, without these two words being near the top of the “how to” list. While you won’t need to communicate with the same level of intensity as you may have during the event, you need to maintain a consistent level, frequency and volume of communication. The simple act of communicating consistently will, in and of itself, send a message of commitment to the community about its well-being. Consistency is also comforting to people who have endured a chaotic time of uncertainty. Anything that contributes to a sense of order and routine will help. Regular engagement on your social media platforms, scheduled open houses, speaking or providing a presence at local community events – all are part of being consistent.
Apply Risk Communication Practices: There are a collection of strategies, tools and tactics specifically designed for communicating information when concern is high, people feel threatened and/or there is a low level of trust. Ultimately, the practice recognizes that people in a stressful situation, like that of a community in recovery, don’t process information the same way they might during routine circumstances. Risk comms principles dictate you keep information exchange simple, digestible and mutually beneficial.
Strive for Transparency: It seems at some point many emergency managers start to think the community can’t handle any more truth, uncertainty or bad news. Or they worry too much about how the public might process what they’re seeing and hearing – they might overreact, they may blow it out of proportion, they’ll get in the way. I’ve seen managers simply get weary of engaging the community or exposing their operations to a critical or “irrational” public. Depending on where they are in their recovery and how they feel about your agency’s response, they may very well react that way. Nevertheless, trying to put too fine a filter on what you think people should or shouldn’t know can only damage long term recovery efforts. It’s essential that you continue to communicate the facts and provide access to your operations and processes. It’s essential because it builds and maintains credibility and trust. In any long term recovery effort, your credibility and the community’s trust make a huge difference.
Foster a Sense of Partnership/Ownership: An underlying principle of risk communication practice is finding ways to help impacted communities get a sense for how they are partners in recovery efforts. Human nature reveals we do better in chaotic situations when we have a sense of ownership, input or control over what happens to us. Sincerely seeking community input, suggestions and/or assistance via social media, public meetings, door-to-door surveys, etc., will bring the community into the “inner circle,” as it were. It allows them to feel some ownership of their recovery.
#Winning: The ultimate goal is to recover quickly and get back to a sense of normalcy. That’s the essence of a resilient community. To support that goal in your communication, it’s important to seek and share stories that reflect the community’s success during recovery, stories that illustrate how far everyone has come, stories that offer proof – not just hope – that life will return to normal.
Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally, U.S. Coast Guard. Caption: “Petty Officer 1s Class Jay Pioch, a boatswain’s mate with Coast Guard Station New York, holds the National Ensign as Angelia Picataggio, right, an 85-year-old former Navy spouse, touches the flag, Nov. 6. 2012, that was presented to her at her husband’s burial. Pioch and other members of the New York-based station surprised the Picataggio family by assisting clean out their house in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.”