Preparing For Hurricane Irma Taught Me 8 Things About Crisis Communications

by | Sep 20, 2017

I sit here writing this article less than 12 hours after Hurricane Irma hit Tampa. I’m in a home with power, Internet and, besides for a few branches down in the backyard, there’s no real proof that we even experienced Hurricane force winds.

Honestly, I didn’t plan for this.

See, I am a “plan for the worst” kind of person. I don’t know if I can even say that I“hope for the best”. Instead, I expect the worse. I saw Irma out in the Atlantic when it first became an orange X, just hovering there with a moderate chance of becoming something. I watched it as it became a Hurricane –still hundreds of miles from land. And I have watched it every minute up until it finally came knocking on Tampa’s front door.

I was planning for the worst. I went to Walmart on Tuesday and stocked up on canned goods, water, batteries and beer. I planned on my power going off. The entire house had been prepped for the worst and our safe room (ie: our spare bathroom) was stocked for when the worst of it hit later that night.

Turns out, the storm mostly missed Tampa and while it had a huge impact across the state of Florida and much of the Southeast, it didn’t impact our home at all (we didn’t even lose power). So what did I learn from this activity and how you can apply it to crisis communications?

1) Watch the storm track.

Every business has vulnerabilities but most of these are known and relatively predictable. Like a hurricane, you can see them forming, growing and heading directly your way. Sometimes, they dissipate before they even arrive and sometimes they grow huge before they even hit. You have to watch the path and plan accordingly.

2) Have your evacuation and shelter plans ready.

Before you can even start your preparations, you need a plan. As with a hurricane, the plan will be dependent on when the storm will hit, what direction it is coming from, and its intensity. Get these plans together while the storm is still a ways away so you can have time to implement them. Better yet, put your plan together before the storm is even on the radar. A lot of corporate crises are like hurricanes – it’s not a matter of IF it will ever happen, it’s more of a matter of WHEN it will happen. Plan accordingly.

3) Stock up on canned goods.

While you can’t be prepared for everything, you need to have your material ready to go. You know your organization’s weak points. You know what your opponents will hit you with. You can prepare and be ready to not only defend it, but fight back.

However, the one caveat to this is making sure your materials aren’t expired. It should be fresh and in a form your audience can be ready to consume. Periodically, check on your materials to make sure they are up to date and not expired.

4) And don’t forget water.

Water is ubiquitous. It is the one thing that you don’t always think about needing to stock up on because in most cases, even if you were to lose power, you would still having running water. However, in a hurricane, that isn’t the case. It’s the same thing in a crisis. What is equivalent to your company’s life-giving water, something that you assume you will always have access to, even in a crisis? Is it your fan base? Your corporate infrastructure? Now what happens when you lose that during a crisis? If there is a way to “stock up” on it in other ways prior to the crisis, do it.

5) Document for insurance.

If the worst happens, make sure you have your proof ready. Just like your insurance is going to require photos and receipts of your goods if you make a claim, you should make sure you have more than just your company’s word to support your material. You need photos, videos and data to support whatever crisis is coming at you. A press release isn’t going to be enough in most cases. Have content laying in wait.

6) Board up your windows.

In most cases, it isn’t the wind or rain from a hurricane that will easily damage your house –it’s the items and debris flying around because of the wind that will damage your house. While you can’t cut down that beautiful 100 year old oak in your yard, you can remove that garden gnome or pink flamingo. Those things can become dangerous projectiles when hundred mile per hour winds hurl them around.

It’s the same in a crisis. What else may be caught up in the winds of the crisis and cause your organization more damage? What can you clean up now in preparation to protect your business? Make sure you battened down the hatches and tied up any loose ends. When the crisis hits, you need to focused just on that, you don’t need to be worried about anything else flying around when it hits.

7) Know what’s truly important.

When the crisis hits, you need to know what’s truly important. In a hurricane, they always say that your stuff can be replaced but you can’t replace your life or the life of your family members. What’s your business’ life? What absolutely cannot be replaced in a crisis? Knowing this ahead of time will help you make the hard choices if and when the time comes.

8) Have extra batteries and keep your phone(s) charged.

Just like a hurricane’s impact doesn’t end when the winds have passed and waters have receded, sometimes the crisis doesn’t end when the event that started it is over. The power can be out for days and weeks afterwards and some crises last well afterwards too. You need to be prepared for however long the ongoing effects of a crisis last.

For Hurricane Irma, my wife and I were lucky here in Tampa. The predicted Category 4 ended up being closer to a Category 1 when it reached us. Much of our preparations weren’t actually needed… this time.

Does that mean I regret taking the time and effort to prepare?

Not at all. The preparations were a great activity and we learned a lot through it all. Next time around, we will know what needs to be done and how we can accomplish it at a faster and more efficient pace. We’ve stocked up on needed canned goods, batteries and water, so we won’t have to worry about that when the next storm is breathing down our necks. And we have documented all our belongings for insurance.

So even if a PR crisis looks to be coming straight at you and ends up being not at bad as your preparations called for, be thankful for the prep. You never know when the next storm will hit –and at full force.

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