All levels of government did a great job of being out in front of their message to the public about the severity of the storm, who it would impact, and what steps citizens should take to protect themselves and their property. Several days before the heart of the storm came on land in New Jersey and New York, national and local government officials had informed residents of preparation procedures and even gave evacuation orders to people in some areas, including New York City. New York City Mayor Bloomberg gave orders to close all public transportation and ordered residents living in low-lying areas (what was called zone A) to evacuate by Sunday afternoon. The city that never sleeps was shut down. This had a worldwide impact when the New York Stock Exchange was closed on Monday and Tuesday because of the storm, but it was the right thing to do. The government deployed national disaster relief from FEMA, the Air National Guard, the Army and the American Red Cross early so they were on location when people needed them the most.
From the top down, the government did an excellent job being proactive about Hurricane Sandy. During a critical campaign week before the election, President Obama canceled campaign visits across the country to do his job as the leader of our country. The President’s commitment to providing disaster relief was intense – he stated that “We are not going to tolerate red tape, we are not going to tolerate bureaucracy, and I’ve instituted a 15-minute rule, essentially, on my team. You return everybody’s phone calls in 15 minutes, whether it’s the mayor’s, the governor’s, or county officials. If they need something, we figure out a way to say yes.” Implementing the 15-minute rule was critical to clearly get things done and solve real problems fast. This approach enabled the White House to share vital information and delegate strategic action plans to the lower levels of government. Rapid response is crucial in a disaster; the people in charge need to continuously know about changes to the plan, status reports, and what is happening on the ground. In addition to communicating effectively among themselves, these multiple government organizations did a great job of quickly and clearly communicating with the public.
Days and even weeks before the storm started its destruction of the Northeast, the government was sending warnings through traditional communication channels, such as televised press conferences, as well as more interactive channels like social media. The most predominant communication channel used was news television broadcasts, but according to the New York Times, social media channels such as Twitter recorded over 20 million tweets about Hurricane Sandy between Saturday and Thursday of last week. The public was clearly involved in information sharing about Hurricane Sandy; this provided guidance, comfort and reassurance.
As government public affairs organizers, we must be proactive, flexible and connected to ensure we are reaching all of our different citizen groups with timely, accurate information and guidance, through the communication channels they use and trust. Various government officials like Mayors Bloomberg and O’Malley did just that, using several Twitter accounts to get information to the public. They were focused, and provided an excellent example of strategic crisis communications done right: leveraging communications effectively to educate the public, disseminate critical information in a rapid, reliable and easily understood format that their audience could embrace, calming fears and dispelling rumors.
If these past few weeks have inspired your organization to dust off your strategic crisis communications plan and see where it needs updating, now’s a great time to review your plan to ensure you’re building in the use of interactive communication with new social media tools as well as traditional communication channels to ensure the public has timely, accurate and clearly understood information and guidance. For more information on how Advice Unlimited can help you create and implement a successful disaster communication plan, or provide support for other public outreach and communication initiatives, please contact me at 301-924-0330 or firstname.lastname@example.org.