Effective Communication During a Natural Disaster.

As summer comes to an end, we are entering the heart of hurricane and wildfire season in the U.S. When a natural disaster strikes, everyone in its path is affected. From the small local banks to large multinational corporations to colleges and universities, every organization is expected to respond if the disaster will affect their customers, employees, or students. We recently saw the importance of disaster communications highlighted as a derecho (a type of inland hurricane) devastated Iowa. As Iowans waited for assistance, a lack of news coverage and national awareness resulted in slow response times and delayed federal assistance. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, as newsrooms shrink and states across the country are competing for federal attention and resources, it’s more important than ever that organizations effectively communicate during a natural disaster.  What is Disaster Communications? According to Roger Lowe, former Senior Vice President of Communications at the American Red Cross, “the basic principles of communications still apply to a disaster, but all of the stakes are higher. Lives are at risk, emotions are heightened, expectations are increased, and urgency is greater.” During a natural disaster, organizations should still adhere to some of the core principles of effective communications—message discipline, clarity and concision, calls to action, timeliness, etc.— to ensure their messages reach the right people at the right time. How are Organizations Communicating During Disasters in 2020? During a disaster, both traditional and social media, when used correctly, can save lives. Yet the current media environment—and the disproportionate focus on COVID-19—has made it harder for regional natural disasters to break through the noise, complicating communicators’ efforts to disseminate information and create urgency. Newsrooms have been shrinking for years, and cuts due to COVID-19 have further accelerated their decline. With an already crowded media environment, securing airtime to inform the public, even of potentially life-saving information, is a challenge. Fortunately, as social media continues to become a primary news source for many Americans, it has had a positive impact on communicating critical public safety information during a disaster. The sharing of information through Twitter, the most-used social media platform during hurricanes, “has been known to encourage social cascades of life saving actions and unity.” Still, social media presents its own set of challenges, as the spread of misinformation proliferates before, during, and after natural disasters, jeopardizing public safety and complicating relief efforts.  Given the stakes and communications environment, disaster communications are an immense undertaking that require a coordinated and thoughtful strategy. It’s worth taking a look at two recent natural disasters to assess how some organizations are communicating.  The Iowa Derecho On August 10, large swaths of the Midwest were hit with hurricane-force winds, torrential downpours, hail, and tornados. Iowa and Illinois were hit the hardest, with Cedar Rapids, IA at the epicenter of the damage.  Immediately after the storm abated, the Iowa Red Cross tweeted pictures of the damage and reported they were on the ground assessing the damage. In the days that followed, they tweeted advice on how to deal with power outages, ways people could help, and statistics on their response. On August 13, the national Red Cross Twitter handle tweeted about the derecho for the first time and began directly responding to calls for help and criticism from individuals, including claims that communities were receiving no assistance and left to fend for themselves. The Red Cross responded to these criticisms and attempted to deescalate the situation with a consistent answer, saying that: “It’s likely that we’re responding in your community, but we may be working behind the scenes. Depending on which organizations are responding, the Red Cross could be sharing duties with other groups or supporting response efforts with people, supplies, expertise or funding. Please know that although our physical presence may not look the same as it did before the pandemic, we are still providing critical support to families and individuals in need. If you’re in need of assistance or information, please call 1-800-RED-CROSS.”  In addition to communicating directly with the public on social media, the Red Cross also engaged local and national media. Via local media, they communicated when to expect relief, what resources were available, and how to access financial assistance. With national media, the Red Cross focused on collecting donations from outside of the Midwest, including a New York Times article with links to their donation pages. Moreover, in an effort to build good will with other parts of the country and drive donations, there were a number of human interest stories highlighting Red Cross volunteers from other states helping with Iowa relief efforts. California Wildfires From August to November, hot, dry winds are frequent in California and wildfires burn across the state. 2020 is no exception: as of August 19, the state was battling 367 known wildfires. These fires often damage power grids and communications infrastructure, limiting Californians’ internet access and complicating the work of first responders. In preparation for this reality, Verizon proactively communicated across owned channels about their efforts to ensure the resiliency of their network, how they support first responders, and how they provide network and connectivity support to relief efforts. While Verizon does provide services to the general public during disasters, like unlimited call/text/data for customers impacted by wildfires, their efforts are more targeted to assisting first responders and other relief organizations. Therefore, they have far fewer external communications and garner very little earned media coverage.   Best Practices for Effective Disaster Communications The divergent strategies of the Red Cross and Verizon throughout recent natural disasters provide good insight into some best practices for communicating during these scenarios:
  • Message Control. Messaging control, coordination, and consistency are always central to effective communications, but during a disaster they take on greater importance. A lack of consistency can create confusion during an already chaotic time, potentially costing lives and causing harm.
  • Actionable Information. When a hurricane is barreling toward the coast, the people in its path want to know how to stay safe. Whether a disaster is imminent, in progress, or has finally passed, organizations should provide actionable information that helps people prepare for it, stay safe, and access resources. 
  • Understanding Target Audiences. Those affected by the disaster are almost always the primary target audience, but there are other important stakeholders to consider. During disasters, organizations may also want to communicate about their efforts to policymakers to build or maintain political capital.
  • Managing Expectations. With lives at stake, the last thing you want to do is mislead those in danger. If an organization’s relief efforts are going to be delayed or services have to be suspended, it’s critical for it to clearly communicate that information to stakeholders. It must align its messages with the reality of the situation on the ground so as to not misrepresent what it is capable of providing. This helps people affected by the disaster know what to expect, when to expect it, and how to plan accordingly.
  • Stay in Your Lane. When a disaster hits, a wide array of organizations converge on the affected area to deliver relief and provide information. Organizations should stick to communicating about the services they deliver and sharing the information they can accurately provide. 


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