Adapt crisis communications plans for natural disasters

Preparing to communicate when no one else can

The headlines of the past few weeks have described inescapable flooding in Houston, irresistible winds in Florida, and infrastructure collapse in Puerto Rico. Disasters can be a critical time for your customers, employees and your brand reputation. To ensure you serve customers well, you must anticipate the possible conditions of a natural disaster and be prepared to leverage alternative means of communications and operations.

During Hurricane Irma in Florida, there were 100 mph winds and flooding that resulted in damage to the electrical and communications grids as well as roads. Millions had no electricity or Internet service and spotty cellular phone service for extended periods, and it negatively affected their business systems.  VOIP phones (Internet based) were down. Many point-of-purchase (credit/debit card readers) and invoicing systems are cloud based and became inaccessible without Internet service. Social media pages were neglected as well due to loss of connectivity.  Businesses were brought to their knees.

But a few businesses, like my client Seacoast Bank, opened the majority of their branches for business within 24 hours after the storm passed. Their 24/7 call center and mobile banking application never went down. How did they do it? The 90-year old Florida-based community bank has weathered many storms over the years and was prepared. They shared this via a customer letter:

“Well before the hurricane struck, our business continuity team superbly executed our storm plan – creating staffing back-up plans, securing generators for our branches and ATM network, confirming the readiness of our vital data centers, and ensuring our mobile and online networks remained fully operational throughout this weather event.”

A crisis due to natural disaster may call for business leaders and owners to step outside normal roles to communicate with customers and make their businesses work. One of my clients’ executives allowed employees to bring in their children whose schools were closed to keep their community-critical business operating during power outages. This executive personally took several shifts watching employees’ children to allow employees to serve customers. The owner of a car repair business I patronize used his personal mobile phone to call customers when the business phone wasn’t working. He also used his personal vehicle to source replacement parts for customers when delivery services were down after the storm.

As you and your team prepare for a possible disaster, make sure your crisis communications plan includes the following:

  • A named crisis management team that includes senior leadership
  • Clear criteria for when during a natural disaster the crisis plan and crisis management team will be activated
  • Plans for both internal and external communications – employees must be kept in the loop
  • Designated crisis communications center including a secondary off-site location in case primary site is compromised
  • Digital and printed copies of the plan for each member of crisis management team
  • Annual rehearsal of plan implementation through simulation scenarios
  • Alternative ways to communicate when mobile phone and Internet services are unreliable

To further develop that last bullet point, when phones are down and you have no Internet access, there are still ways to communicate. Consider having one of the following forms of communications equipment as part of your fail safe back-up plan:

  • Satellite phone (Satphones)
  • Two-way radio (walkie-talkie)
  • Citizens band radio (CB Radio)
  • Amateur radio (HAM radio)

It takes a small investment and a little bit of training to implement such plans, but it could help you communicate and keep your business running during the roughest of times. And, knowing you cared enough to think ahead could mean the world to your customers. The months ahead will tell the tale in terms of brand loyalty, but my assessment is Seacoast Bank, and others like them, have made huge deposits into customers’ goodwill accounts with their preparation and performances during recent natural disasters.

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2 thoughts on “Adapt crisis communications plans for natural disasters

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  1. Be sure to keep vital personnel records, duplicate copies of all works in progress, completed projects, client information, and all files in two remote locations so your business can continue work as usual just in a different location. Be sure you have a couple of locations pre-designated as future temporary offices. Allow employees to work from their home and have meetings via group phone connection and face time on conference via laptops. Also, a casual attire (not pajamas) should be fine unless you are having video conferences with clients. Relax…your employees know how to do their jobs…let them. Hotels have many large meeting rooms and ballrooms you may be able to lease during a prolonged disaster period.

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