As Florida now braces itself for Hurricane Irma only two weeks after Hurricane Harvey, those in Texas and Louisiana are just beginning the rebuilding process in the aftermath of a storm labeled as “unprecedented” by the National Weather Service. Like the rest of the country not in harm’s way, I watched the events unfold from my dry, safe home and wanted to do my part to help the many who lost their homes, pets, personal belongings and much, much more. As an American, my heart was breaking for all of those in affected areas. As a communicator, and one who has worked with Visit Houston for nearly the last four years, my mind immediately turned to how we could help the city demonstrate to the world their resilience, big hearts and determination.
Even though natural disasters at this scale don’t happen often, and even more rarely as a one-two punch, it looks like the Atlantic hurricane season is stacking up to be quite active. Having recently emerged from nearly two weeks of working with our client on a topic of such magnitude, and seeing the impact Irma has already made, and is expected to make this weekend and beyond, now is an important time to share a few learnings that can be applied to future, some only a few days away, events of this enormity.
Learn From the Past
I instantly knew that communications coming from the city of Houston would be compared to those from Katrina because while it’s been 12 years, the images from New Orleans will always be raw and vivid in our minds. That said, there are only so many messages within your control. We had to hope the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) response to Harvey would be swift and organized, unlike that of Katrina. But not knowing what might transpire, we set out to help Visit Houston communicate to stakeholders early and often. Releases were short, to the point, included key facts related to tourism operations around Greater Houston and did not make any promises that couldn’t be kept.
When it comes to communicating around natural disasters, we are humans first, communicators second.We are humans first, communicators second.
In nearly every natural disaster, lives are lost, property is damaged and spirits are shaken, and we must make our compassion for those affected very clear. This is particularly important when a civic organization is balancing how to aid its constituents, but also ensure clients and visitors it will rebound and be open for business again quickly.
During most crises, there is no down time for communicators. It’s a 24/7 job. A natural disaster veers from this norm. In the aftermath of Harvey, city communicators were professional, but also took the time to be part of the community and get involved in the volunteer relief efforts. After all it’s their hometown, and there is no greater way to show your love than with actions that mean so much more than words.
Our social news feeds were filled with information from news media, family and friends affected and those simply wanting to share their support. In fact, there have been over 20 million posts about Harvey in the last two weeks. With so many Houstonians sheltering in place, social media became an even more vital tool to communicate with family, ask for help or simply seek companionship.
For city officials, and specifically Visit Houston, the use of social media went through three key stages: first, acting as a resource for relief effort updates; then serving as a conduit to inform followers on how they could help; and finally sharing messages of strength and heroism among Houstonians so the human stories weren’t forgotten about in a barrage of one destruction photo after another.
This one might seem self-serving, and it is somewhat, but in the right way. After a natural disaster of large scale, it is only normal for tourism business to fall off. As communicators, we will help our clients turn media attention from recovery to rebuilding to reopening to ensure potential visitors know the destination is ready to welcome them. This is where an opportunity is created, but often not thought about in a time of crisis.
Immediately following a hurricane, earthquake or some other catastrophic event, city organizations will receive more media inquiries than they will know what to do with. In communicating with reporters (when the time is right), it’s important to remember that these same contacts could become your best allies when you are ready to shout positive, heartwarming and factual stories from the rooftops about the revival of your destination.