CRISIS COMMUNICATION WHEN DISASTER STRIKES: WHAT AND WHEN TO COMMUNICATE
No one wants to think about it—It will never happen to you, your family or your clients or community. But bad things do happen, and when it’s part of your network, it’s important to know what to communicate, and when. While natural disasters can be prevalent this time of year, unfortunately, there are many man-made disasters that warrant a crisis communication plan as well. When disaster strikes, consider this your guide as a small business owner for the dos and don’ts of communication.
When YOU are the one impacted by a disaster.
I.e., Your office is located in tornado alley, and a giant storm system just came through town.
- DO make sure your direct team is ok. If your office was in the path of a natural disaster, check on each of your employees to ensure their personal homes and/or immediate family were not directly impacted. If they were, their wellbeing becomes your top priority. Offer to help or send help however you can. If not, bring the team together to assess the situation at the office.
- DON’T consider it business as usual. There is an emotional component to one’s community being impacted by tragedy. This needs to be accounted for immediately following an event. Even if your client base resides out of state, with 24/7 media reporting, the rest of the country will hear about the weather event or manmade tragedy that impacted your city. They will be forgiving if you’re not available to serve their needs for a period of time.
- DO communicate with your network. Often, when working with people out of town, they can assume you’re automatically affected by a tragedy impacting your community. Let them know as soon as possible that you’re ok. This can take the form of an email to your database, a banner on your website, change the recording to your voice mail, set up autoresponders on your email, post on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, and similar. People just want to know you’re “ok,” even if you’re not available. If you don’t put out a public statement, you may be more busy fielding calls from concerned clients and colleagues than addressing the more pressing matters at hand. (Note: If you have social media posts scheduled on autopilot, be sure measures are taken to pause content that may be considered untimely or inappropriate.)
When YOUR CLIENTS are the ones impacted by a disaster.
I.e., A hurricane caused flooding in a city where you have clients.
- DO reach out. To the points preceding, after employees and family, if it’s individual clients who were in the path of a storm, check in to make sure they’re ok. Whether this is verifying their addresses were not in the immediate path of the storm or a simple text message asking if they’re ok. If it’s a business-to-business relationship, checking their various communications platforms may be enough to get an update, too.
- DON’T go to them. At least not immediately. When a natural disaster has occurred, depending upon the size of the event, first responders from around the country may need to get into the city. Think floods in Houston or New Orleans; roads need to be cleared, and then open to first responders, and often resources become tapped for basic essentials. When conditions are safe, invite them to come to you if appropriate. If you need assistance in locating someone impacted by a tragedy, there are always hotlines and websites created by non-profits or municipalities that can help you. Start there.
- DO remember them in the coming weeks. Just because a news story has faded from media, it doesn’t mean that the impact of the event is over. For natural disasters, rebuilding a home or a community can take weeks, months and in some cases years. Stay connected with your client or colleague in the future to see how you can help support them.
When it’s in your community and/or impacts the country as a whole.
I.e., A terrorist attack or mass shooting.
- DO make sure your team, clients and their families are not directly impacted by tragedy. I was working in public relations at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on 9/11. Upon entering the department offices that morning, our CMOs first response was to ask if anyone had family living in the NY / DC areas. If the answer was yes, he sent them home to check on their families. From there, the rest of us who could focus on minimizing the impact of the situation for displaced travelers remained on duty.
- DON’T capitalize off of tragedy. Living in Las Vegas, I saw a handful of companies disguising ads as “thank yous” to first responders after the 10/1 shooting in 2017, only to flip the script halfway through the commercial and invite people to try out their brand. This is distasteful and discrediting to your organization. To this day, I refuse to do business with the companies who considered the worst mass shooting in our country’s history as an opportunity to market their services. Wow. Just don’t.
- DO offer support and assistance. Whether that’s through time, blood, or money if your community is in need, take the lead with your staff and clients. Let your staff leave the office to donate blood at Red Cross. Give them the freedom to work with organizations to help pick up debris after a tornado or go door-to-door after a flood. Turn your office into a drop off location for supplies. Help be part of the solution after tragedy strikes.
Rudy Giuliani is credited with his swift and thorough response to the terror attacks on 9/11. He attributed this to the preparation and planning for different “worst-case” scenarios he had in place ahead of time. I would encourage each of you, on your own smaller scale, to think through some worst-case scenarios that could impact you, your clients or your community and get a game plan in place for how you might respond. Discussing with your team ahead of time could allow for you to respond versus react and to be more impactful should a scenario such as this ever occur.