PUBLIC RELATIONS: Handling the likes of Hurricane Ike

Posted by on September 29, 2008 in Business Management, Public Relations [ 0 Comments ]

Hurricanes, floods, lawsuits, financial meltdowns, earthquakes…I’ve handled them all as a PR professional. And now, as the nation deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Ike and the Wall Street meltdown, we not only need to pray for those affected, but we should also take the time to ensure we’re prepared if something like this happens to us.

Handling a crisis as a public relations professional takes intelligence, grit, experience, and sometimes a general ability to be at the right place at the right time. You want your employees and customers to know that you’re in control of the situation. That means, wherever the conflict, that’s where you’re at…being a physical presence at the scene, ready to handle the media and customers.

When the island of Kauai was hit by a horrific hurricane some time ago, my company had a great number of customers and employees affected. Within 48 hours of the eye hitting landfall, I was on an emergency cargo plane packed with food rations and water — enough to last me for four to seven days. My mission was to ensure our customers knew that if they needed help, our company was ready and prepared.

When I arrived at the island airport, I was concerned because of the long lines of people waiting to get OFF the island. Rental cars were just parked and abandoned on the curb. Nothing looked normal and in fact, the scene looked like it was straight out of a war zone.

The first thing I did was nab a rental car that was sitting at the curb with its keys still in the ignition. From there, I ventured off to find a hotel for which I supposedly had a reservation. I found the hotel in the dark. I went to the lobby to check in. Even though there was no running water or electricity, the hotel actually had a room for me. No matter the conditions, I was there.

You see, to handle an extreme disaster, it’s important to be where the media is. The day after my arrival, I struck up a relationship with the local radio station that was running regular island updates to help keep its listeners updated on the island’s situation. They gave me regular access to airtime so that I could inform my customers about what they should do and what our company was doing to help them. In addition, I tracked down CNN, the Los Angeles Times and a San Francisco radio station, all within 48 hours of my arrival, to show them how our organization was responding to the incident. Despite the conditions and perilous situation, we managed to make our presence known.

The lesson here is not so much on how to deal with the elements…but how important it is to be at the disaster site as soon as it happens. That’s because all of your stakeholders – employees, customers, partners, and vendors — need to be assured that no matter the circumstances, your company is a partner with them…in good times and in bad.

There’s an old saying that if you want people to know that you care, tell them…and if necessary, use words. Being at “ground zero” speaks volumes about your company’s commitment. That kind of message is priceless.

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