Comms failures preceding Katrina played key role in exacerbating the damage it unleashed

If every crisis was preceded by days of warning and satellite imagery of the oncoming threat, PR pros would probably not have enough to do.

If every crisis was preceded by days of warning and satellite imagery of the oncoming threat, PR pros would probably not have enough to do.

Had those occupying office space in the World Trade Center been privy to advanced photographic detail of the two planes preparing to crash into the towers, those buildings would have been deserted on 9/11.

So why is it that in spite of blanket coverage of Hurricane Katrina's lumbering progress towards the Gulf Coast were so many people left to endure the disaster's consequences? Why is it that endless coverage and government information programs were not enough to spur every single person who was capable of moving under their own steam to leave the area?

The blame game is in full swing, with much of the emphasis focused on efforts following the storm, when it was clear that, for New Orleans in particular, the storm itself was only the beginning of the city's troubles. But regardless of who screwed up and when, the simple fact is that the city was not sufficiently evacuated prior to the disaster.

This was a communications failure of the worst kind because it neglected to consider the population that was receiving its message. It also failed to ensure that directives were followed with action. Poverty among much of the remaining city dwellers was obviously a major reason why so many were left behind. Many could not afford to leave, were too sick to leave, or had nowhere to go. The fact this might be a problem was either overlooked or ignored, and available resources to help people were not utilized to their full extent.

The New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness has a link on its website, detailing communications procedures for hurricanes. "Literature in the form of pamphlets, flyers, circulars, will be made available for public distribution," one bullet point reads. Another section details the proper procedure for developing PSAs and for encouraging local media to prepare special reports on the hurricane.

The section on "public awareness and education" includes one directive which seems particularly relevant: "Develop procedures and mechanisms for the notification of persons who cannot rely on traditional media sources." Unfortunately, this guideline refers mainly to hearing- or sight-impaired individuals, rather than those who may not be accessing the media through the internet or other technological channels.

Even if individuals have access to sophisticated media outlets, they may be more influenced by the behavior of those in their neighborhoods, churches, or workplace, than by the generic details disseminated through the mainstream media.

In ROI terms, this communications plan was an abysmal failure - a failure to reach in a meaningful way its intended recipients, and a failure to understand the challenges that so many would face in leaving the city.

Industry shines in efforts to aid Katrina victims

Our issue this week highlights the efforts of many corporations, PR firms, and pros who are trying to help alleviate the suffering of the hurricane survivors and rebuild the region. The outpouring has been enormous, and we do not have the space within these pages to record every act of kindness and goodwill that we've heard about. We have included much of the additional detail on our website, prweek.com, and will continue to follow the story as it develops.

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