LESSONS  IN  COMMUNICATION  FROM  'KATRINA'

MANILA, AUGUST 16, 2007
 (STAR) COMMONNESS By Bong R. Osorio - The rains poured and provided a much-needed respite from the extended dry spell that had many worried about the possibility of water rationing in the metropolis and irrigation stoppage for planted crops in rural areas. The prayer of the faithful was heard loud and clear, making the receding water supply in our dams rise to a less alarming level. But as expected, it also got many streets flooded, businesses interrupted, and classes suspended.

After hours of non-stop rain, images of people wading in knee-to-waist-high waters, residents getting evacuated to dry areas, a landslide killing an eight-year-old boy, and a family being rescued from under a collapsed wall resurfaced. These impressions bring back memories of Milenyo, Reming, the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, and lead us to ask the question — are we prepared for the next possible disaster?

As a communicator, this query has to be registered, since this writer firmly believes that effective and efficient communication has the ability to save lives. In fact, powerful communication before a crisis, and rapid communication during a crisis, has the ability to move people out of harm’s way.

This points to some lessons learned from two crisis management sessions I attended at the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) conference held recently in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, where the featured case study was Hurricane Katrina. Gerard Braud, an international trainer, professional speaker and award-winning journalist, handled one module, while John Deveney, president of Deveney Communication, the PR group that managed the crisis, took care of the other presentation.

Braud started by citing staggering facts and statistics about New Orleans, which were most likely mismanaged and eventually threw the city into deep crisis. The city of jazz music is considered the worst-case scenario by the National Hurricane Center; a full evacuation of the metropolitan area at a time of extreme emergency will take 72 hours; 20 feet of water will overtop 15 to 17 levees; much of New Orleans is below sea level; and 100,000 people will have no transportation. Hurricane Katrina reached category 5 status.

The behavior of elected officials and appointed leaders in New Orleans was cited as the main factor that threw the city into deep crisis. Their sense of duty in providing real public service was overshadowed by heavy denial that a disaster had actually happened, forcing Braud to sarcastically say, “Denial is not a river in Egypt, but is a large lake in New Orleans.” Fast and competent action was overwhelmed by arrogance, and being responsible was supplanted by blame.

The results of such behavior were astonishing, to say the least: more than 300 school buses flooded; 300 transit buses inundated; 1,836 people dead; 33,544 residents rescued by the US Coast Guard; 20,000 evacuees brought into the Superdome; and 25,000 refugees stranded at the convention center. Nineteenth-century philosopher Karl Marx was right: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. If those same characteristics lurk in our country, we must collectively warn our national and local government leaders and disaster coordinating agencies, and determine if the country has a disaster communication plan. If it does, is it truly an emergency plan? Assuming there is such an emergency plan, does the plan work, does it get tested annually, and does it have a budget?

Braud recommends some steps to take to protect organizations and countries from crisis. It starts by performing a vulnerability assessment where everything that could go wrong (sudden or smoldering) should be listed. Then move on to the heart of the plan, determining step-by-step instructions, gathering the who, what, when, where, why and how of the crisis, and completing a “calling tree” for the crisis team, media, government officials, and advocacy groups. Creating message templates are likewise critical. Ninety-five percent of what can be said can be written today, and should be pre-approved by communication leaders and legal minds. Once the plan is in place, it would help to have crisis communications drills to expose possible flaws in the plan, in assumptions and people.

Deveney, on the other hand, emphasizes the roles of communicators in preparing the chief executive for any crisis occurrence and how to respond to and manage a crisis. His suggestions are summarized in these protocols:

• Have an independent communications group to augment in-house communicators

• Prepare a proactive communications plan as part of an overall disaster plan

• Review the plan and find time to exercise it

• Preplan messages and responses

• Designate media contacts that are accessible, available and responsive

• Ensure the crisis plan is not launched into a defensive communications approach

• Be absolutely certain you have the facts straight

• Check through everything from a legal perspective

• Analyze how media is portraying the situation

• Be honest about the situation, acknowledge it and immediately offer solutions

• Keep messaging on point

• Keep internal and external publics informed

• Reach out to PR colleagues and ask for help

• Manage the strategy simultaneously on all online channels.

The two presentations underscored the urgency of communication. The Philippines, disaster-prone as it is, should revisit its crisis response plans and update its components if necessary. As this piece gets printed, the rains must have stopped, but this is no excuse to be complacent about preparing for the next big challenge.

As one saying goes, “If you fail to plan, then plan to fail.” Our success as communicators is measured by the way we generate our facts, how we analyze these facts and set them in perspective, design our strategies, implement our plan of action and measure the impact of the whole plan. Media man Bob Woodward captured the essence of great crisis communication when he declared, “In many ways, individuals and institutions get measured by their capacity to deal with change, surprise and the unexpected.”


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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