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Advice Unlimited

Advice Unlimited

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Irene Inspires Proactive Communication from Federal, State and Local Officials

Disasters happen. How quickly and appropriately those in authority respond to those disasters can make the difference between a frightening but manageable situation, versus a full-out catastrophe on many levels. It seems that government officials at federal and state and local levels took to heart the lessons from Katrina, and made sure that as Hurricane Irene captured the nation’s attention, they were in front of the storm – with their communications and their preparedness efforts.

The speed and precision you exhibit when communicating with your public correlates directly with how bad the crisis will be – when you have a solid plan in place you can move faster to calm fears, negate rumors, and build trust with your audience. By placing your clients' needs first in dealing with a crisis you are more likely to survive a crisis situation. The mantra before Irene from many government organizations was the focus on how they could help their citizens: ‘we can’t stop the winds or the floods, but we can move to protect our citizens and save lives.’ Some felt the mandatory evacuations in some places was a bit of overkill, but NJ Governor Christie, for one, clearly stated, “no regrets.” Many followed that pattern of better safe than sorry, and most found calm acceptance from their constituents. There was even patient acceptance that the power company crews ‘were doing their best,’ as people were consistently updated through various media sources on the battle against power outages by crews working 24/7, and supplemented with traveling crews from other parts of the country.

Clearly, some things were done right. Is your organization in good shape for the next time a calamity impacts your operations? How up to date is your crisis communications plan?

The Calm Before the Storm

Before a disaster occurs, your priority and top-level goal is to prevent or minimize a crisis situation before it escalates. Many government organizations are reviewing their crisis communications plans and putting Public Information Centers (PICs) in place. These organizations understand preparedness is vital to successful crisis communications and have gone through the necessary procedures to be ready when disaster strikes.

There are key steps to preventing or minimizing a crisis. To begin, prepare a plan that dictates the roles of the leaders on the crisis communications team. This plan designates the makeup of the confidential working group that will deal with the crisis, and defines the logistics of immediately assembling this group to assess the situation should a crisis occur. Once the leaders are in place, determine key facts surrounding the disaster; including: What is at stake? Who is the audience? What are your immediate and longer-term communication needs? What needs are exclusive to this type of disaster? Understanding the scope of the situation allows both primary and secondary prevention to be considered. Primary prevention averts incidents from occurring, while secondary prevention thwarts an incident from escalating by swiftly addressing issues made public.

An effective crisis communications plan will provide the processes to help you anticipate challenges, recognize your vulnerabilities, and evaluate and assess potentially damaging scenarios. It provides the tools to thoughtfully define the parameters of a crisis - what's the worst news that could come out of a possible disaster - and the best way to prevent and/or manage such a scenario.

The more you prepare during the calm, the faster you can get ahead of the storm when a disaster hits. As our constituents become more connected and communication tools become more interconnected and interactive, the more important an effective crisis communications plan becomes. This plan helps your team navigate rough waters effectively, to minimize panic, reassure your audiences, and protect sensitive sources. A delicate balancing act - but one Public Affairs and Public Relations professionals must engage in more and more frequently. And we all want to be able to say, confidently and calmly, at the end of the storm: ‘no regrets.’

Sandy Evans Levine is President of Advice Unlimited, a Woman-Owned Small Business public outreach/strategic communications firm serving government organizations and IT companies, based in Olney, MD. Ms. Levine can be reached at

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