Every month, another natural or man-made disaster or crisis appears to occur larger in scale, more frequent, and in unexpected locations. One never knows when a disaster or crisis will strike your hometown or state, nor does anyone know each morning that your life could dramatically change forever before going to bed at night.
After working in various communications roles on five high-profile national disasters, including the recent Moore, OK, tornado and the Murrah Federal Building Bombing in 1995, I believe a major opportunity exists every time for local PR agencies. Wherever a disaster hits, the local public information office is typically a one- to two-person office. However, the immediate need is for a full-service professional public relations team to manage the onslaught of national and international media, endless requests for accurate information on disaster status and resources, tours for federal, state, and local government and other VIPs, and simply, the non-stop 24/7 ringing of phones with calls from around the world needing to be answered at city hall.
PR agencies have always participated to help their communities in many ways by volunteering agency services or throwing on t-shirts to help fill sandbags and remove debris.
Three facts are always present: 1) A one- to two-person office in a disaster situation needs a “full team” with “all hands on deck;” 2) Frankly, no one has a crisis communications plan for the unimaginable disaster; 3) Communications is the most urgent tool.
These facts present an opportunity for PR agencies to better serve their communities by taking a larger role and “step in” to the disaster. There are a range of possibilities on how PR agencies step in when a tragedy unexpectedly hits their community.
- Step in to city hall. Show up at city hall. There is no need to wait for an official call for help. The PIO wants to reach out for help, but the pace at city hall in the fallout from a disaster or crisis is so frantic that public officials are just trying to catch their next breath, as well as worrying about their own families, friends, and neighbors. The PIO will put your agency team to work, probably before formal introductions if you don't already have an existing relationship. Even if the city already has an agency of record, they still need all community and professional hands on deck because many city officials will not have time to sleep in the first 48 to 72 hours. Also, and unfortunately, a disaster frequently begets more disasters that starts a snowball effect and requires diverted attention by the PIO and city officials. For example, hurricanes and tornadoes can create transportation and flooding crises that impacts other geographic locations.
- Step in to full service communications. Accurate, real-time communications is imperative to calming fears and stabilizing chaos. A PR agency already has the tools for a comprehensive communications effort and expertise in crisis communications. City hall needs a full agency team to expeditiously create and launch online and social media sites to manage inquiries for help and match resources with needs; professionally field national and international media requests and news crews on site; setup daily news conferences with government officials, design digital billboards with updates to keep community informed; arrange requested tours for government leaders and VIPs. Basically, all of the tools in the PR agency's toolkit need to be utilized within the first 12 to 24 hours.
- Step in as community connector. An agency's client roster provides a wealth of resources to meet the community's needs, either in the first few hours during the life-saving rescue phase, or in the removal or rebuilding phases. Position your agency as the connector of resources to meet the community needs by launching an initiative and announcing it to clients and prospective clients through the agency's online and social media platforms.
- Step in for training the next generation. The best way to learn is to dive in and get real-world experience. A disaster offers an opportunity for young public relations professionals, which hopefully will be an once-in-a-lifetime experience, to gain behind-the-scenes crisis communications experience. They are energetic and intuitively knowledgeable in the digital communications world. Send the next generation to city hall and allow them to help while gaining invaluable first-hand experience in managing tactics during a crisis.
Stepping in to a disaster can be a tall challenge for PR agencies because we have clients outside of the impacted area to provide services, and we may be affected ourselves. It will stretch your resources for days or perhaps a week or more, but the community goodwill for your agency as well as for the PR profession will make your clients proud that you represent them. And besides, it's just the right thing to do.
Brenda Jones Barwick is president of Jones Public Relations, which focuses on energy, technology, and free-market public affairs. She can be reached at Brenda@jonesprinc.com.