New Orleans: the road ahead

As New Orleans firms slowly return to the region battered by Hurricane Katrina, a guarded optimism prevails.

As New Orleans firms slowly return to the region battered by Hurricane Katrina, a guarded optimism prevails.

Keating Magee, a 20-person firm, had an internal goal this year: to work on a being a truly connected team. In December, CEO Jennifer Magee realizes that the New Orleans-based firm has accomplished that goal through hardship and through the struggle of staying in business post Katrina.

Keating Magee, whose client roster is 85% comprised of New Orleans companies, is just one of the many firms from the region affected by Hurricane Katrina. Each has its own story and its own path back to the goal of pre-Katrina business-as-usual.

Some of the PR professionals were caught off guard or forced to stay towards the end of the evacuation effort for clients.

Employees at Keating Magee spent the Saturday before the hurricane hit at an event for a Tampa, FL-client on Decatur Street.

"We've weathered a bunch of things before, so we were going to weather this," Magee said. "We weren't as prepared as we normally would have been for a hurricane because we had a large client opening an attraction in New Orleans. Everyone was so preoccupied with the event and the 100 [client] employees in town."

Employees from Deveney Communications, which counts the Louisiana Office of Tourism and New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau as clients, also waited till the last minute to evacuate in order to serve their clients, and left only when the hurricane reached Category 5 status.

Employees of local PR firms evacuated to all parts of the country, with principals struggling to keep in touch after corporate communications infrastructures and cellular phones failed.

"People started setting up their own individual e-mail accounts, and tried to get in touch," Magee said. "But text messaging worked the best."

Magee herself went to Northern Mississippi with her family as soon as she learned a return to New Orleans would be much delayed. She set up her office at a relative's place, and started working to recover the next day. A tech employee put up a freestanding website so the agency could track down everyone's location.
 
"I didn't have cell phone, e-mail, or fax," says Joel Mandina, a displaced New Orleans PR professional, now working in Boston. "How, as a professional communicator, can you communicate when you don't have any of your tools?"

Steve O'Keefe, executive director of Patron Saint Productions, switched to a Voiceover Internet Protocol (VoIP) system due to downed telephone lines, and suggests that all companies think about employing such communications redundancies. He says he was also blessed that his internet providers were hosted elsewhere.

Displaced, but back to work
Within two weeks after evacuating, Keating Magee had located a majority of the staff through the web page, and employees had begun working from cities like Chicago, Denver, and Atlanta. The agency had also reached a majority of clients. Once everyone was located, the organization made its concerted effort to get people back to New Orleans.

Magee started sending out a daily motivational e-mail to rally personnel and often asked, "What can we do to help you personally?"

"Through that period, we were going to clients' homes to meet with them, different employees were sharing homes and cars, and otherwise doing whatever it took to get the business back together," Magee says, adding that it brought another level of closeness to the staff.

But Keating Magee had to layoff some employees. In addition, other staffers, especially those with children who needed to find schooling, started contemplating starting over in their adopted towns. Magee told them that they needed to do what was best for their family, even if that meant resettling where they landed.

Deveney evacuated to South Florida, where he immediately set to work finding new clients. He signed up palmbeach3, an arts festival. Now that he's back in New Orleans, he also expects to add more local companies.

"Clients were remarkably understandable, cancelling and reissuing checks when needed," O'Keefe says about the two months he spent in Nashville and Richmond.

The return home
When Deveney returned to New Orleans on September 15 to help his tourism clients with the rebuilding effort, he found an industry damaged.
 
"The loss was substantial within our industry," CEO John Deveney says. "There are agencies that have gone, and others that have let a lot of staff go."

While one might think the lessened competition would positively affect Deveney's business opportunities, he says that any blow to an industry is always negative for the remaining firms.  He added that some of the agency's clients faced a likely termination.

More than 75% of Keating Magee's employees have returned to its New Orleans office, on the top floor of a brewery.

O'Keefe returned on November 1 to find what he called "a very badly damaged infrastructure." He said the public services infrastructure, such as phone, cable, electricity, and natural gas service, was incredibly fragile and postal service was poor.

O'Keefe was incredulous on Wednesday when a CNN national broadcast talked about a two-hour power outage in Detroit.

"For us, it's every day. We routinely have 14- and 15-hour power outages twice a week... and our office is in the Biwater [district], one of the areas that was supposedly unscathed," O'Keefe says. All of his employees, some of whom have lost their homes, are telecommuting.

But not all New Orleans PR professionals have returned home.

Mandina, now a PR account executive at Mullen, evacuated the Sunday before the hurricane hit. The agency he was working for let him go, laying off nearly everyone but the executive staff.

He then drafted a letter to PRSA presidents in markets such as Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Boston, in which he told his story. Soon opportunities rolled in and he ended up connecting with search firm Chaloner Associates that placed him at Mullen.

"It's horrible being laid off, especially when I thought that PR should have taken a dominate role" in the recovery effort, Medina says. The positive, he says, is "I can really write a great crisis communications plan now."

Positive news
Among the heartening news out of the city is the government's plan to offer free wi-fi service. In addition, Bell South is pulling out its damaged copper infrastructure and replacing it with fiber optic cables.

O'Keefe notes that the infrastructure upgrade underscores a more important point.

"It's symbolic for the business community because those in [small] businesses feel it's about time someone put our survival ahead" of service providers, he says. "It's a good and gutsy move on the part of the city that won't be popular with the telecoms providers."

Magee says the turnaround has been dramatic; the day after Katrina, the executive team dropped its revenue expectations for September-December to 20% of the previous projections. Today, she says the agency believes it will make 70% of those expected billings. It has started trying to hire back laid off employees.

The agency will meet those margins even though Magee describes September as "a total loss" where most of her clients did not operate at all.

Deveney is ebullient about New Orleans' recovery.

"The analogy I keep coming back to is the Californian gold rush. There won't be more of an economic focus on a geographic area than on here now," Deveney says. "2006 is going to be an important year for our clients. The rubber is going to hit the road."

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