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How can I handle my company's disaster response?

Dear PR Matters,

I recently joined the communications groups of a medium-sized company, and early on, I had to deal with how a natural disaster affected our area. This caused much inconvenience for the community, and we had to attend to their concerns and their complaints.

The next time this happens, we want to be better prepared. Kindly share with us some best practices on how PR can handle disaster response. This will be very helpful to me and my team.


Sheila S.

Dear Sheila,

Thank you so much for your letter which echoes a growing concern for PR practitioners. Natural disasters are everywhere-Typhoon Ompong in the Philippines, Hurricane Florence in the US and the recent earthquake in Indonesia.

Ironically, these major disasters took place in September, which has been named National Preparedness Month in the United States. It is when the federal government offers resources for people to prepare in the event of an imminent natural disaster.

In the public relations front and in the spirit of this awareness initiative, PRSA's New York Chapter hosted a panel discussion 'Disaster Communications: Preparing Yourself, Your Team, and Your Company for the Unexpected' at FleishmanHillard's New York Office.

This was documented by Justine Joffe in an article 'How to Handle Your Brand's Disaster Response in Phases' in an article in PR News. There is a lot we can learn from these discussions.

To begin with, this was moderated by David Rosen, vice president of Programming at PRSA New York, and the panel included MSNBC Senior Vice President of Communications Errol Cockfield, American Red Cross Communications Officer Allison Pennisi, NYU Langone PR Director Neal Gorman, and FleishmanHillard's Crisis lead for the Americas Senior Vice President Chris Nelson.

Here are some takeaways from the discussion as documented by Joffe:

n The difference between a 'Crisis' and a 'Disaster'-Nelson early on pointed out the difference between the two: 'crisis,' he said, is more often a corporate crisis that may arise out of a disaster; while 'disaster' is the disaster itself.

n A brand's response to a crisis or disaster should not only be well-practiced, but executed with three priorities in mind.

The first priority should be people, 'whether your people or people should need help, save them first,' Nelson said.

The second priority should be business recovery 'as quickly as is reasonable, as quickly as possible. That will serve you in the long term.' If you are a mall, for example, you should be able to make whatever repairs are needed quickly and then open to serve customers.

The third priority is community recovery. 'To the extent that you can use your corporate resources to respond to the community's needs. It becomes very, very helpful.'

n Don't make it all about the photo op.

Nelson added that clients who either go into the disaster to get help and get coverage for it and do it badly 'end up as a punchline in social media.' Likewise, 'clients who make big mistakes while doing disaster recovery in the region, then become the story instead of being another company that was involved in the story.'

n Nelson said figuring out how your business should respond to a disaster ultimately comes down to thinking ahead about what part it should play. 'What is your role in the story?' he asked. 'Are you part of the affected? Are you the villain? Understanding your role in the story is important.'

We will get tips from the other panelists in next week's column.
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Publication:Business Mirror (Makati City, Philippines)
Date:Oct 8, 2018
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