NEW YORK: Almost three weeks after Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas, the crisis response continues 1,700 miles away in the New York offices of Weber Shandwick.
Working around the clock, Weber’s staffers have been coordinating media interviews, making headline corrections and sending out social media posts on behalf of client Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and Aviation — even while some await news of their own loved ones and the 1,300 people are still missing.
"We’re not just a different client; we’re family," said Tommy Thompson, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism’s deputy director general.
The seasons have structured Weber Shandwick’s work for the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and Aviation for more than two decades. When the skies are clear, it markets the islands as Caribbean paradises, boosting tourism numbers and getting heads in beds. When storms gather, the tourism ministry and Weber Shandwick pivot to crisis mode.
But the unprecedented level of anguish Hurricane Dorian brought to the Bahamas has made the work "personal" for Weber’s staffers, according to Alice Diaz, the firm’s EVP and practice lead of travel and lifestyle.
Diaz, who has worked on various pieces of business in the Bahamas for more than 31 years, recalled setting up a conference call with her team to decide what their next steps should be following Hurricane Dorian. She was aware some of her team members hail from the Bahamas or have friends or family they hadn’t heard from.
That challenge has forced Weber staffers to be better PR pros and communicators.
"It’s not a distant crisis response like we’ve handled in the past," Diaz added. "This one has been very personal."
Thompson said members of his own family had to be evacuated from the affected islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama.
A Category 5 crisis
On August 24, a tropical storm formed 725 miles southeast of Barbados. The U.S. National Hurricane Center dubbed the budding system "Dorian," prompting the Bahamas Tourism Ministry and Weber Shandwick to review their crisis plan.
They went over messaging, the Bahamas’ official website and how tourists would receive safety alerts, Diaz said. They worked with meteorologists to clarify what areas would and wouldn’t be affected in an "identification and separation" campaign.
Over the next few days, when it became clear that Dorian would be a historic storm, "it was more about helping to get the word out and helping with the relief," Diaz said.
The ministry and Weber worked to inform the public of what airports were open and how they should change their travel plans.
On September 1, Dorian finally made landfall on Abaco as a Category Five storm with sustained wind speeds of 185 miles per hour, moving a slow pace of 7 miles per hour. It would later shift to Grand Bahama.
Despite being Labor Day, Weber Shandwick staffers supported the tourism ministry "24/7," Thompson said.
Once Dorian swung northward, away from the islands, Weber focused on helping the ministry update the public on the loss of life, transportation options and relief efforts through "back-to-back" media interviews and social media, Diaz said.
Thousands were evacuated from Abaco and Grand Bahama to other Bahama islands, the U.S. and neighboring Caribbean nations, Thompson said.
In the wake of the media blitz, Weber is now working to correct the record and inform the public, especially tourists, that only two islands, Abaco and Grand Bahama, were affected.
But most of all, the Bahamas wants the public to know 14 of its islands are open for business.
"You can help us by donating to Bahamas.com but the best thing you can do is to continue travelling to the islands of the Bahamas," Thompson said.
In the weeks since Dorian, the Bahamas has noted tourist cancellations, but Thompson said it hopes to see a move toward a "positive trend."
Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and Aviation spokesperson, famed musician Lenny Kravitz, appeared on CNN to help spread its message.
With help from Florida-based marketing agency, Tambourine, the Bahamas website unveiled a new message that invites the international community back onto its islands.
"You’ve shown us great love," the tagline reads. "We’re so grateful, we’d like to return the favor … 14 islands welcome you with open arms."
This is not to downplay the devastation to the islands either: Thompson said 20% of tourism capacity was wiped out and it will take years for Abaco and Grand Bahama, its second and third biggest tourist and economic centers, to recover. Whatever revenue the island nation can generate through tourism is sorely needed to finance reconstruction.
For the past two years, tourism was the Bahamas’ largest employer and helped create almost 15,000 new jobs, Diaz said via email.
With the booking window for September to October only being about 30-45 days, the tourism ministry isn’t pouring all its effort into marketing, Thompson said.
"We’re still in the middle of hurricane season, so god forbid, there’s another one coming our way," Thompson said. "We’re saving the majority of our firepower until the peak booking periods. At the same time, we’re still being sensitive to the fact that two of our islands were hit very badly."
From November to January, the Bahamas will transition to another line of messaging: reminding the public that the islands continue to be a viable holiday destination, Thompson said.
"They’ve had their ups and downs with hurricanes and other crisis issues, [but] they always land on their feet," Diaz said.