Eye of the Hurricane


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Hurricane Katrina's eyewall, Aug. 25, 2005, the day before it hit the U.S. (Photo credit: NOAA.)

There’s nothing worse than a vacation cut short.

My vacation in Sunset Beach, N.C. last week ended sooner than I expected. I had to head back to work Sunday at Sprint Nextel to help respond to media inquiries as Hurricane Gustav hit Louisiana.

I should have known better than to try to plan a vacation in the middle of hurricane season. That’s always a busy time for our public affairs team because in a hurricane, customers reach for their cell phone and that’s precisely when our wireless network is hardest hit.

The prediction of a hurricane means PR people are busy at electric and gas utilities, airlines, hotels, hardware stores, banks, insurance companies — the list is endless.

Consider the number of news releases out announcing that “fill in the blank company” is prepared for Tropical Storm Hanna, which is predicted to hit the Carolina coast sometime this weekend. Here’s a sample: Geico, USCarrier Telecom, Allstate, Walgreens, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Progress Energy, my colleagues at Sprint Nextel and of course the folks at FEMA. That doesn’t include the companies who issued releases to share the impacts that Hurricane Gustav had or didn’t have on their business.

At Sprint Nextel, my first hurricane to work was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I’ve had a hand in our response to every storm since. Over the last few years, here’s what I’ve learned.

In advance of the storm, tell the story of what your company is doing to prepare. Your customers expect you to prepare. Almost half of small businesses hit by a major disaster such as a hurricane never reopen and nearly a third close within two years. Often, these businesses failed to plan.

Identify reporters assigned to cover the storm well before landfall. Hurricanes draw national news media coverage, especially cable television news. Reach out to editors and assignment desks before those reporters ever leave their newsrooms to offer your company as a source.

Update your customers and media often with how the storm impacted your business. During particularly large storms, we will place a time-stamp on our updates, so visitors to our Website’s hurricane page will see the network restoration information in its proper context.

Don’t forget your employees. Keeping your employees informed is extremely important, especially with the advent of Web 2.0. In a hurricane, your employees want to know the same things reporters want to know. But they also want to know how their co-workers were impacted. Did anyone have to evacuate? Did anyone lose their home? Employees will rally to a co-worker in need, but you have to tell them what happened.

Close the loop with your customers and media when the storm is over. When you reopen stores closed because of the storm, announce it. When you’re back to business as usual, say so. And if you are publicly held, consider announcing the financial impact that the storm has had on your bottom line.

Then after the storm, hold a meeting with your colleagues to determine what worked well and what needs to be improved. The Japanese have a concept known as kaizen, or loosely translated, continuous improvement. Briefly, the idea is that you can always improve, no matter how successful you’ve been. That’s especially true when it comes to crisis communications programs.

I’m sure you have more ideas and I’ve probably forgotten some of ours, but that’s only because I’m still kind of in vacation mode. As it turns out, I may go back to Sunset Beach very soon. Tropical Storm Hanna is expected to make landfall there this weekend. I may return to deal with reporters who will be covering the story from the North Carolina coast. But it certainly won’t be a vacation.

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2 responses to “Eye of the Hurricane

  1. Fortunately, Tropical Storm Hanna spared Sunset Beach and Brunswick Co., N.C. News reports this morning indicate that while the island was under a mandatory evacuation, tides were only up 6-8 ft. Initial inspections this morning indicate the storm caused very minor damage.

    But my next concern is Hurricane Ike. I’ve got a long planned trip to the Fla. Keys slated for next week. Stay tuned.

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