Natural disaster communications strategy

Our second blog post in this series focuses on the various communications strategies an organization needs to deploy when a natural disaster strikes.

Our second blog post in this series focuses on the various communications strategies an organization needs to deploy when a natural disaster strikes.

Our firm was recently involved in managing the media after Hurricane Sandy for one of our clients. One of the first challenges we faced was to proactively prepare our media and communications strategy and tactics before the hurricane hit. A firm is not always this lucky, but in this case we knew that Sandy would be a serious event that would strike the New York metropolitan area. Our client has historically been engaged on the front lines of such disasters and large-scale human tragedies. We knew our client would play a leading role in the relief and recovery efforts after the storm hit.

Logistically, we had to plan to be on the ground with our client shortly after the weather had subsided, so we could get an accurate understanding of the role our client would play in the aftermath, how the communities in crisis were impacted, and what the media needed to know to get the word out to the public. We took that raw information and began creating a series of storylines for our client, asking such questions as what resources are they going to provide to assist communities, what dramatic stories need to be told to make the public aware of the needs, and how can the public make a difference? One such storyline was that our client launched a comprehensive Sandy Recovery Fund to assist in the mid- and long-term recovery needs of communities up and down the eastern seaboard.

Shortly after the disaster, we were fortunate to set up a segment on Today with its anchors on location in one of the most devastated areas on Coney Island. We worked hard to strike a balance between packaging some of the dramatic human interest stories that would capture the public's attention, encouraging them to assist the victims without seeming to exploit the families or being insensitive to the dignity of those in crisis. This was a key challenge for our team all along the way. The NBC anchors and producers wanted authentic volunteer opportunities that they could participate in to create a segment covering the suffering of those in the hardest hit areas in order to raise awareness and help their viewers understand the human impact of the storm.

We learned that external and internal communications within the organizations on the ground in a natural disaster are critical to managing a successful public relations effort. Also, it's important to remember that reporters and media on the ground are often as confused and disoriented as you are in the middle of a disaster. It's your job to provide clarity for them in terms of what is going on in the field, separating fact from rumor and providing them with the real-life stories that will help them generate the coverage that the public needs to know.

In our final blog post, we will review the similarities and differences between a traditional crisis communications story and a natural disaster crisis story.

Larry Kopp is president of the TASC Group.

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