Helping Katrina victims today, planning for the future

As one friend of mine has commented when speaking about efforts to provide relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina, "it's a marathon, not a sprint."

As one friend of mine has commented when speaking about efforts to provide relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina, "it's a marathon, not a sprint."

Those of us in the communications business are accustomed to acting fast. So when Katrina struck, and the horrifying images of what was happening to our fellow Americans showed up on our television screens, we were united by a passion to help - and to do something right now.

The community of people in our business thought along two tracks: Many of us have friends in New Orleans, and we love the exotic and laid-back feel of the Big Easy. PRSA held its annual conference in New Orleans just two years ago - a magical time in a magical city. So our immediate thoughts turned to the personal, - helping family, friends, and fellow professionals who were suddenly in danger of losing their livelihoods.

Because of the nature of our profession, we also moved on autopilot into crisis communications mode. That means that we thought beyond today and the day after. We realized that long after the television cameras depart and the political finger pointing abates, serious problems will continue, and the needs will be just as great, if not greater. Cities and towns must rebuild. A regional economy so dependent on tourism must revive.

At PRSA, the most frequent questions we got from our members last week were, "What can I do to help?" and "How can I use my professional skills to make a difference?" As it turns out, there is a lot that those of us in this business can do to help above and beyond those very important financial contributions. That's where the long-term commitment comes in.

The fact is, many organizations, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, have had such a great response from professional communicators that they have been unable immediately to absorb the surfeit of volunteers. But down the line those organizations will need that support. Our lives will return to normal fairly quickly, but that won't be the case for our friends in the South.

Sometimes our passion for immediate response chokes the system, and by the time people really need our help, we're on to something else.

I don't think that will happen this time around. In fact, we are already seeing some longer-term offers of support. Agencies are offering office space to companies and competitors in affected cities for months to come.

At PRSA, we've set up a Hurricane Crisis Response Task Force that is putting together initiatives to deal with the short and long term. Our displaced colleagues won't be moving back to their homes and offices tomorrow or next week or next month. Their needs will continue weeks, months, and perhaps years from now. Our willingness to roll up our sleeves and do what is necessary will need to be as intense then as it is today.

Disasters like Katrina require both the quick response to help those in need and the strategic, long-term thinking that makes recovery possible - and, perhaps, helps us learn and become better prepared for the next time they happen.

Following 9/11, the PRSA partnered with the American Red Cross in a program we call "The Power of Two" to provide Red Cross staff and volunteers with training, strategic and disaster planning expertise, and other support services so the organization could more easily, efficiently, and effectively mobilize its communications efforts during a disaster of similar proportions.

We all hoped nothing would happen to cause such a mobilization, but the very existence of an organization like the Red Cross should tell us that disasters do occur. "The Power of Two" is a solid program built on sound competencies instead of glamour. And it works.

The advance planning and strategy of the Power of Two program showed its mettle in late December and early January, when the tsunami ravaged Southeast Asia and Africa. It has come into play again as we cope with the results of Katrina.

Our job right now is to plunge in and do what we can to help millions of Katrina victims. At the same time, we should think strategically about how we can leverage core competencies for the future.

We need to learn from what we're doing to be better prepared in case we're needed again, whether it's water again or the Biblical "fire next time."

Unfortunately, there probably will be a next time. Fortunately, we'll be better prepared.

  • Judith Phair is president and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.

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