Adversity is a great teacher. Nearly six months after Hurricane Harvey slammed Houston late last August, we Houstonians can look back and derive important lessons about preparing for a major natural disaster and managing its aftermath.
As a corporate communicator who, like others, nervously and helplessly watched the water rise, I learned about the parallels that can be drawn between the historic flood and how companies respond to their own crises.
People whose homes flooded were overwhelmed. At first they ripped out drywall and moved their waterlogged belongings to the curb, but then what? Thankfully, expert resources soon arrived, in some cases from faraway states, to guide them. Nonprofit groups and volunteers came with tools and know-how.
When my family undertook major renovations on our house in 2014, we began by interviewing several contractors. But few flood victims after Hurricane Harvey had the luxury of interviewing contractors. Even finding a contractor available then would have been difficult. If only they’d prepared a list of names and numbers in advance.
In corporate settings, outside crisis management experts can use their mental and physical distance from a crisis to see it clearly. This is a valuable perspective.
Similarly, companies can anticipate many of the resources they’ll need if a crisis strikes. Before you obtain help, get to know qualified crisis advisers: outside legal counsel, crisis communications experts, and specialists such as forensic accountants and cyber experts. Next, find small projects, such as crisis simulations, that those advisers can participate in so they’ll become familiar with your company and are ready to jump in when needed. The middle of a crisis is the wrong time to find the right resources.
1. Find your allies.
After Hurricane Harvey pounded the area, the city of Houston came together in a remarkable way. Friends helped friends. Strangers helped one another. For many of us, that spirit of people coming to the aid of their fellow citizens is the legacy of Harvey we’ll remember. But many neighbors who wanted to help didn’t know where to start. Fortunately, nonprofits and religious communities helped organize relief efforts and connected volunteers with families in need.
Companies, too, have many potential allies in a crisis — including employees, industry groups, financial analysts, community and consumer advocacy groups, and think tanks. Such allies need to be organized, however, for crisis management messages to be consistent. To that end, build relationships in advance and present crisis allies with specific ways they can help — by submitting an op-ed to the local paper, publishing a research report that describes the company’s position or speaking with reporters on background to educate them on a complex topic. Help people to help you.
We were inspired by the swift and steady support of first responders and grass-roots volunteers like the Cajun Navy and the Cajun Coast Search and Rescue Team, many members of which brought their own boats from Texas and Louisiana to aid Houstonians and help them rebuild. Years of training backed up their skilled and brave work. Drills, exercises and seminars had built their knowledge and experience into muscle memory so they could respond almost instinctively.
On a similar note, regular practice helps companies identify resource needs and gaps in their planning, and also resolve disagreements over crisis approaches. Along with hosting regular crisis-simulation drills, companies are well served by having robust conversations about crisis management at the board and management levels. It’s also advisable to debrief after even minor events (which can escalate into major crises), and to talk with outside advisers about how best to prepare.
2. Offer tangible aid.
For the first few weeks after the hurricane, homeowners whose houses did not flood helped neighbors begin to clean their messes up. But as their needs grew from swinging sledgehammers to more complex and skilled tasks, we felt helpless. What could we offer, other than money and emotional support? But then I heard requests I could handle: borrowing a wheelbarrow, going on a grocery run, referring a painter or bringing lunch and water for workers.
In times of crisis, people’s needs are often specific and simple. Maybe they need help paying for a funeral or finding flights for out-of-town relatives. A company offering tangible aid for specific needs can alleviate people’s immediate concerns and help them pave a path forward. Doing so also demonstrates that the company is listening and wants to assist in recovery. The best way to help victims of a crisis is to ask them what they need.
3. Demonstrate empathy.
To those whose homes were flooded, some well-intentioned words of encouragement fell flat: “You’ll be rebuilt in no time,” they heard. Or when roads reopened, people said: “The city’s already back to normal.” Positivity and optimism have their place, but in any crisis people need room to process their emotions.
Time and again, across a range of crises, we have seen that every person wants to be heard. If a company doesn’t seem to be listening, stakeholders will turn to the media or social channels to share their stories.
Often, corporate statements after a crisis offer trite expressions of sympathy and support that, even when heartfelt, can sound like mere lip-service. Demonstrating empathy through actions — without trying to claim credit for it in the media — means far more than simply offering “thoughts and prayers.” In a crisis, the adage that “actions speak louder than words” is strikingly true.
4. Be wary of misinformation.
Finally, looking back on Harvey, I am still amazed by the role that social media played in linking rescue boats with those in need. I saw multiple people post their flooded locations on Facebook to request assistance and then connect with others miles away who coordinated with boat owners.
But the speed that social media offered during Hurricane Harvey also poses risks for companies in crises. Social media can quickly disseminate information that helps people take action just as fast it can spread misinformation and criticism.
In advance of a crisis, companies should consider how social media might help, while also developing strategies to minimize or carefully shape social media discussions to make them more constructive.
The damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey challenged our community to its core, bringing out the best in people but also leaving wounds both visible and invisible. Such an experience can shape — or reshape — a city, an organization or a company. Before you face your own corporate crisis, draw lessons from Houston’s response to help weather the storm and return to normal.
Sydney Isaacs is managing director at Abernathy MacGregor, which has been helping companies manage communications challenges for over 30 years and has been a proud member of the Houston business community since 2011.