Houston and Harvey: A local communicator's perspective on weather-related disasters

When a weather event occurs, first responder organizations and local authorities automatically take the lead, but people in the communications fields may be working 24-7, as well.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

I have lived in the greater Houston area since 1990. As the saying goes, I'm not a native Texan but I got here as fast as I could.

I provided communications support for One Houston, the United Way-led local relief effort after Tropical Storm Allison's $4 billion assault in 2001 and, three months later, the fall of Enron. In 2005, I volunteered at the Astrodome and  when New Orleans, Louisiana, was crippled by Hurricane Katrina. About a month after Katrina, in September 2005, I was one of millions who attempted to evacuate in anticipation of Hurricane Rita. In 2008, I was a week away from chairing the Public Relations Society of America Houston chapter's PR Day conference when we cancelled because Hurricane Ike had landed and local communications leads would be "all hands on deck" for the foreseeable future. My point? I've seen many weather-related disasters in my community as a citizen and as a communications consultant. I have never seen anything like Hurricane Harvey's devastation across the Gulf Coast.

When a weather event occurs, first responder organizations and local authorities automatically take the lead. Many non-essential businesses shut down, whether voluntarily or due to damage. People in the communications fields such as journalists, public relations and crisis communications leads, and marketing and advertising leads, may be on call 24/7 for their employers, clients, and community groups. We aren't saving lives, but we have work to do.

Here’s what they should prioritize:
Talk with team members to learn about their potential risks in their neighborhoods and communities, and encourage everyone to take any advance preparations they can. Ask your team to take care of personal and safety needs and advise when they can be an asset to you and clients;

If you don't have a culture in which staff and vendors from multiple disciplines, backgrounds, and levels of experience are comfortable working with each other in a highly fluid environment, this will be your trial by fire;

Everything on the staff and client calendar changes. Evaluate anything planned or scheduled that needs to be addressed or modified, including social media content, advertising spots, campaign pitches, and special events;

Prep media relations leads and spokespeople for an often-overwhelming volume of inquiries and prepare your monitoring and analytics team to put all other projects on hold;

Make sure you have mobile phone and alternate email information for clients, colleagues, and contacts;

Plan to work as a team with unreliable internet access and power and from remote locations.

Call the roll:
Conduct regular check-ins with your immediate team via text, email, or call to ensure that each person is taking care of their personal health and well-being;

Conduct regular check-ins with clients and address actions or efforts you need to handle that might ordinarily be out of scope. The rules have changed;

Keep updated status information in your network system where everyone on the team can readily access information;

Mobilize:
If you have advance warning of an event, check in with your local disaster relief and community organizations in advance to learn what they anticipate needing in terms of products, people, or cash;

Identify ways that clients can help their community with donations of products, services, or cash during or after the weather event because everyone has something to give, loan, or share if they wish to do so;

Enact change for your team as needed to accommodate a fluid communications environment. For instance, we offered future days off for our employees to make up for a planned office closure around Labor Day;

Stay connected in your neighborhood to use your skills as a volunteer communications counselor or do something different like serving a meal at a shelter; CKP team members who weren't trapped in their homes helped serve 1,500-plus meals in four hours while handling media inquiries and client calls).

Counsel wisely:
You're paid to give wise counsel about bad ideas that may come from good hearts. Good hearts and bad ideas abound in times of crisis. This is your job. Do your job;

Protect your people and clients from exploitation and exhaustion. Sometimes your best action is to pass a media inquiry on to another source;

During and immediately after a crisis, compassion generates philanthropic goodwill. Remind your nonprofit clients that stewardship and transparency are critical when dealing with audiences that don't really know them;

Manage your pace. In runner's terms, managing communications before, during, and after a weather-related disaster like Harvey is a cross-country trek and not a 40-yard dash.

Finally, I want readers to know that we Texans and our next-door neighbors in Louisiana are resilient and will be OK again. I do encourage you to make a donation to a worthy organization focused on relief efforts. However, nothing beats the pure harnessed power of neighbors helping neighbors and teams working together. Teamwork wins every time.

Jennifer Evans is principal and director of operations for The CKP Group, a boutique communications firm based in Houston with additional operations in Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles.

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