Lessons from Katrina: How FEMA learned to focus its disaster messages

The government disaster-assistance agency had a busy summer responding to hurricanes in the Southeast and Texas and wildfires in the West. Here's how it's changed communications strategy in the past dozen years.

FEMA’s reputation is a far cry from where it was after the agency dropped the ball in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Amid this year’s very active hurricane and fire season, people all over the country are looking to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for aid and guidance after a disaster.

"[Throughout] the history of FEMA, people either love it or they hate it," says Susan Phalen, director of the office of external affairs at the agency. "It’s easy to hate it in the middle of a disaster when you're seeing everything you own strewn across the lawn and where you go to work isn't standing anymore. It's easy to get frustrated when a disaster strikes."

FEMA was especially busy this summer, with three powerful hurricanes hitting Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands and wildfires spreading across California, Oregon, and Montana. Its primary communications goal was to ensure that stakeholders from Congress to the media to local officials and members of the public are getting the same message.

The agency takes its messaging direction from people on the ground, such as mayors, governors, or local authorities, who know a region best and can assess what their constituents need. This avoids FEMA appearing to be the "3,000-mile screwdriver coming from Washington saying you have to do this," explains Phalen.

The agency then acts as an amplifier, spreading that message to other audiences, including Congress, government departments and agencies, the press, the public, and the private sector.

"The way we coordinate our messaging strategy is so that everybody who communicates to those external audiences is speaking with one voice," Phalen says. "How we’re communicating with Congress is no different than how we’re communicating with the private sector or with the governor or with the press."

One lesson learned from Katrina was to increase the access of the press to FEMA employees, a strategy the agency uses to reach the public. Prior to the 2005 hurricane that devastated New Orleans, there were few people at FEMA cleared to speak with the media, which Phalen recalls creating a bottleneck of information about the hurricane.

"So much of how FEMA can be successful during disasters is by being 100% transparent and upfront with how they’re responding," says Kendra Barkoff, consultant at SKDKnickerbocker and onetime press secretary for former Vice President Joe Biden. "When you’re feeling helpless, it instills confidence that your government is on top of it."

In the decade-plus since, the agency has trained each employee to speak with the media, creating a more accessible flow of information during a crisis. "That has turned a garden hose of information into a firehose of information," Phalen says. "A lot of more information is available to the public sheerly because of the number of people [at FEMA] who are able to talk about what they do."

The organization also uses a spate of media types to spread information during a disaster like a hurricane. A simple fact like knowing when it’s safe to return home after a storm can stop people from going back too soon and ending up in danger. FEMA distributes its message on channels including TV, radio, online, and social media, depending on how residents of a region get their news.

"The best practices for any situation are to make sure the information that is available is known and available to people who are going to be in the area affected by the disaster using social medi and using apps," said Susan Lagana, MD in Burson-Marsteller’s crisis and public affairs practice. "There are so many different methods and ways to communicate now, and FEMA is taking advantage of all of those leading up to a disaster."

In a disaster such as a hurricane, FEMA often leans not on 21st century technologies but on the radio. Widespread power outages, like in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, can knock out access to channels like social media, TV, or other digital media. That’s the reason each emergency kit checklist includes a battery powered radio. Another challenge is getting people to take a message like an evacuation order seriously.

"It’s very easy for people who are used to hurricanes coming through their neighborhood every year to say, ‘I’ve never lost power before, I’ve never lost water, I think I’ll be fine,’" Phalen says. "But sometimes ratcheting up through the federal government the importance and severity of the storm causes people to listen more aggressively and make smarter decisions that could be lifesaving."

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