Crisis Communications & Hurricane Gustav: Who Got it Right and Who Go it Wrong?

Plus: Crisis Communications in the Dark Ages

by Gerard Braud, New Orleans and Gustav evacuee

 

The early evaluations indicate that crisis communications was substantially better for Hurricane Gustav than it was 3 years ago for Hurricane Katrina. But there is still room for improvement.

Let’s break it down first with a few communications awards, then some lessons in Crisis Communications in the Dark Ages. The “dark ages” aspect is especially important because as I sit here once again as an evacuee and refugee in Florida, waiting to return home, we see what problems are caused in our techno world when too much crisis communications depends upon electricity at a time when all power has been taken out by the hurricane. 

 

I’ve you’ve ever been in one of my crisis communications workshops you’ve heard me say, “as communicators we have the ability to save lives. Powerful communications before a crisis and rapid communications during a crisis has the ability to move people out of harm’s way.”

 

The New Orleans death toll after Hurricane Katrina exceeded 1,800. This time the death toll for the entire state was less than 10. Government leaders learned something. Although I must say, a frightened public was wiser this time than 3 years ago and willing to evacuate without being told to do so.

 

The “ ‘Gubnor’ with Gusto” Award goes to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. This guy is a certified genius. He took charge. He was a leader. He communicated early and often. He serves in stark contrast to our Katrina governor, Kathleen Blanco. She didn’t have a clue.

 

Louisiana is divided into parishes rather than counties like other states. Parish leaders were quick to call mandatory evacuations. They did a good job managing the expectations of citizens. Even New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called a mandatory evacuation early.

 

In handing out awards, I’ll give Ray the award for “Most Improved,” however let me be clear that Ray Nagin is an idiot still. (Just for fun, do a google search on the phrase Ray Nagin is an idiot. It’s fun to see how many times that phase is used on the web.)

 

Ray’s big headline grabbing blunder this time was when he called Gustav,  “The storm of the century.” No Ray, it wasn’t and when you say that it makes it hard to manage the expectations of the citizens in the future. It makes it harder to get them to evacuate you idiot. A better phase would have been to say, “Gustav has the potential to cause more destruction to the metro area than Hurricane Katrina.” That is a true statement. (As a former storm chaser and journalist who predicted the Hurricane Katrina scenario 15 years before the storm, I can tell you that Gustav’s storm path was potentially a worse case scenario and worse than Katrina. A poorly defined eye wall, weakening wind field before landfall and a fast forward motion kept the tidal surge from flooding everything that Katrina flooded plus double that in areas west of the city. We’re lucky.)

 

To recap the above paragraph: Ray Nagin is an idiot.

 

Communications to New Orleans citizens with no ride to safety could be improved. An estimated 2 million people evacuated safely, including many without cars who were taken out by bus, plane and train. However, despite efforts in the news media to inform these citizens that a free ride would be available, many citizens complained to the media 48 hours before the storm that they had no ride. The answer for me is low tech, not high tech. A website with evacuation information to the poor who have no computers is a bad idea. Putting billboards in poor communities telling citizens to call 311 for a free evacuation ride during a hurricane is a great idea. Sending a note home with their kids from school is a great idea. Asking ministers in poor neighborhoods to announce it in church is a great idea. Low tech beats high tech.

 

And, as I watched the pre-storm events unfold, it is clear to me that more organizations have an emergency operations plan, but still fail to have a true crisis communications plan. (You can download a free article on how to write a good crisis communications plan and download a great first critical statement template at www.crisiscommunicationsplans.com )

 

High tech is getting better for crisis communications, but it still has flaws.

 

Those of us who evacuate annually for these hurricanes use to be in a communications void about when we could go home and whether we still have a home to go home to.

 

These days 24 hours news helps. MSNBC had the best Hurricane Gustav coverage. CNN was in second place. In 1990 I suggested to my New Orleans TV station that we buy 30 minutes of airtime in cities where our evacuees were, so we could broadcast our local news. That never happened.

 

Today, evacuees have access to our TV stations via the web where we can watch live newscasts. The bad news is the TV stations don’t have it perfected yet. The 30 second TV commercial, that they want you to watch, plays just fine. But in many cases the newscast does not play. Or the commercial plays, then 5 minutes into the live coverage, their web site kicks you out and plays the TV commercial again. For God sakes TV stations, fix this so we can get critical information. I know you need to pay the bills, but the commercials get annoying. And by the way Toyota, whose commercial I saw at least 100 times in the past 72 hours, I hate you and my next car will not be a Toyota. (See, frustration breeds contempt and negative returns for your attempt to manipulate the system.)

 

Government websites are much improved, although there is still room for improvement. I’m from St. Tammany Parish and our Parish President Kevin Davis is posting great, short messages to the web. I’d like to see them more frequently, however, but the fact that they have electricity and are connecting to the website is good. My hometown, Mandeville, Louisiana, has not had an active website throughout the storm. My guess is they are on a local server. Bad idea. Everyone needs a server outside of their disaster area and they need redundant systems to move them to other servers if their primary servers go down. My power company, CLECO, has a website that shows me where the lights are still out and where power has been restored. This is a great tool, although their site is really slow. It took me one hour this morning to get the information I needed.

 

LSU, the 2008 National College Football Champions and the flagship school of Louisiana continues to be on my list that rhymes with hit but starts with an “s”.  Daddy Gerard Braud has a daughter at LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Baton Rouge was devastated by Hurricane Gustav. Power will not be fully restored to Baton Rouge for 2-3 weeks. While the LSU website does have updates, the updates are slow in coming and cannot be seen by many of the 30,000 students because the students do NOT have electricity and internet access.

 

Furthermore, the LSU website says that if you do not have internet access, you can call a special phone number for updates. Problem one is students canNOT see the phone number because they do not have access to the web. Problem two is because phone lines are down, cell phone towers are down and phone circuits are over loaded, students are not able to call the LSU phone number to find out when classes resume or what emergency support is available to them.

 

I sent an e-mail to the school suggesting that they use their text messaging system to communicate with students. My daughter, who signed up for the emergency text messaging system, has yet to receive a single text message. This angers me, since in December of 2007 LSU had a double shooting on campus and their text messaging system failed then. It appears LSU still 1) has not worked out the kinks, 2) fails to use it, and/or 3) has failed to run an active campaign to get students signed up for the system. I give LSU the “Ray Nagin Leadership in Communications Award.”

 

Hats off to little Cedarwood School in Mandeville, Louisiana. They used their text messaging system early to inform parents of the school closure for the hurricane, they’ve updated their website on a regular basis, and they are using their text messaging system now and also using their website to inform parents about when the school will reopen. To my wife and Cedarwood School COO, the lovely and talented Cindy Braud, I give the, “Aren’t You glad You Married Me and We’re in This Disaster Together Despite My Many Other Faults” Award.

(If you are with a school or university and you are reading this, there are more free resources at: www.schoolcrisisplan.com )

 

Recap of the above is that high tech does not always beat low tech. Don’t be stupid. Make sure you have multiple systems for reaching your audiences. And, make sure that like LSU, you don’t use your website to give people an emergency phone number that they can neither see nor reach.

 

Next, please make sure you practice “Crisis Communications in the Dark Ages.” There are many people in the disaster zones right now who have no power and therefore, no telephone. Their phone lines may still work to their homes, but because they only have cordless phones, the phones at their offices and homes do NOT work. Make sure you have an old style “slim line” style phone that plugs into a simple phone jack without having to be plugged into electricity. I have a great DVD set that covers much of this information. It is available for purchase at: www.braudcasting.com/DVDs.html

 

Also, many people in the disaster zones and evacuations zones cannot make a phone call on their cell phones. Some cannot because circuits are overloaded, or cell towers are down, or because they do not have a phone charger for their car. The two most important cell phone tips I have for you are to always carry a car charger with you and to PLEASE learn to text message. My daughter in Baton Rouge cannot make phone calls nor can she receive phone calls, but we are in constant communications because we can text message one another. Text messaging works when most other forms of communications fail.

 

Finally, every disaster is a great time to review your own crisis communications plan and crisis communications tools. Do it now. You may never face a hurricane, but you will face some other disaster of nature or man. The philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Even Karl Marx noted that, “History repeats itself first as tragedy and secondly as farce.”

 

I’m glad to say that in the case of Hurricane Gustav, many in my areas did not repeat the farce of Hurricane Katrina and many did not repeat the problems of the past. However, there is still room for improvement and still, Ray Nagin is an idiot.

 

Yours safely evacuated to Florida,

 

Gerard Braud (Jared Bro)

 

For more free resources on crisis communications and media relations, please visit:

www.braudcommunications.com

www.crisiscommunicationsplans.com

www.schoolcrisisplan.com

www.katrinalessons.com