When Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 23, 2005, I was an Assignment Editor at a local television station in Houston. It was in that role, that I first experienced working through a hurricane and serving as essential personnel.There, I worked rotating 12 hours shifts, slept at the station, and basically put my life on hold as I did what I had gone to school to do – be a journalist, provide public information. That was the first time that I understood the role of the news media in an emergency and I began to flex my muscles in crisis communications.
One memory that remains is being on the receiving end of a call from a family member, located in a neighboring state, who wanted to get someone to rescue a family member who was trapped on a rooftop in New Orleans, Louisiana. I remember feeling a lot of empathy, but also feeling helpless. During that phone call, I gave the caller every number I had for emergency personnel although I had numbers that weren't supposed to be disseminated to the public. But, I wanted her to get help for her family. I never did find out what happened to that family. But, it is forever ingrained in my memory.
Fast-forward to September 1, 2008 when Hurricane Ike made landfall on the Galveston, Texas coast, it was then that I was working for a local utility service provider. When the Hurricane hit and more than 2.1 million customers lost power, I was a member of a team of professional communicators who were tasked with sharing restoration information. The company I worked for at the time had practiced scenarios, held mock conference calls and had mutual aid assistance agreements in place. While I felt prepared, you can never really be prepared for being hunkered down in a hotel room, waiting for a storm to hit and knowing that the community will be depending on you to provide critical information.
At the time of landfall, I was in a hotel down the street from our command center as I was in the second group that was planned to communicate in 12-hour shifts. I can recall making the short drive down the street to the center and feeling scared. I pushed back those emotions because I had a job to do. During the event, we were tasked with sharing accurate, timely information to the public on power restoration, fielding media requests and communicating with the thousands of employees who were working to get the power back on. I watched and learned as seasoned professional communicators handled on-camera interviews with grace, responded to media requests and dispelled myths in the community. It was the best on-the-job training. And, it allowed me to see how essential the role of a communicator is in an emergency.
Because of my work during Hurricanes Katrina and Ike and recently, working to communicate with residents during the remarkable rainfall that came as a result of Hurricane Harvey’s landfall, I am better equipped to handle crisis communications and here's what those experiences have taught me.
They taught me the importance of accuracy in an emergency.
First and foremost, my job is to provide accurate information. There is nothing worse than sharing the wrong information during an emergency. The public is depending on public communicators to get it right and even the smallest detail, can be life-threatening. In my work communicating for a local municipality, it is imperative that information on road closures following a storm or shelter information be accurate so that people can safely get to their desired location and understand places where they can take shelter.
They taught me to ask questions.
Because accuracy is important, I have to make sure that everything I communicate is correct. So, although, I am not a National Weather Service expert or a power restoration expert, I have to be able to effectively communicate information about a storm’s track and the process for power restoration. When attempting to communicate in areas where I am not the subject matter expert, I ask a lot of questions.
They taught me to work quickly.
In an emergency situation, things are moving fast. Conference calls and briefings are occurring multiple times a day. Internal staff and the public are asking questions and expecting a response from you. In all of the places I have worked, during an emergency, it has been organized chaos. There are lots of moving parts, so, while accuracy is important, it is critical that information is released promptly. Social media makes this all the more important, because if we don’t own our messaging, the public will do it for us. For a professional communicator, who is accustomed to multiple rounds of review before distributing information, the promptness required in emergency situations can be a challenge. If it's an emergency, there may be only one review of something by two senior people before it goes out and that review may be looking over your shoulder while you type the message. So, you have to be okay with that.
They taught me resiliency.
re·sil·ient. Adjective able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. Verbal/electronic attacks from the public and unhappy local officials never makes you feel good. But, you can’t take any of that personally. Emotions are high when people’s power is out, their homes are damaged and they are worried about the well-being of their families. And, in order to be successful in communicating to them, you have be empathetic, patient and state only the facts.
Communicating during a disaster is difficult. And, professional communicators don’t get a pat on the back when an incident is over, nor should they. After all, it is our job. It’s what we do, and for me, it's what I have been called to do.