When a hurricane hits, land lines are overloaded and cell phone service drops. Power blacks out, and employees could be stranded in a dark, unheated house with a fallen tree across the driveway.
Yet communicators must find ways to pull off what almost nobody else can do: communicate.
Hurricane Sandy, which slammed into the Eastern Seaboard on Monday, forced organizations to find ways to check in on employees and let them know changes in work schedules.
"The trick in emergency comms is that most of the tools are electronic," says Sean Williams, owner of Communication Ammo. "So, you can't do email, cell phones run out of juice, and the media is distracted."
Hyatt, the Chicago-based hotel company, was forced to relocate guests and staff from its Andaz Wall Street site when New York City imposed a mandatory evacuation of parts of lower Manhattan, says Katie Rackoff, director of corporate communications. It has seen intermittent power outages elsewhere and is continuing to monitor the storm.
Hyatt uses several means of communicating with staff and guests, depending on the impact to the hotel. For guests, Hyatt also has an 800 line and an email address, and they can tweet @HyattConcierge.
"For impacted hotels that have large numbers of associates, such as Andaz Wall Street … we are able to activate our employee assistance hotline," Rackoff says. "Associates in potentially impacted areas are given the number as a part of the hotel's emergency preparedness procedures, and there are hotel-specific messages they can receive by calling in."
Individual hotels also maintain phone lists so they can call or text updates to staff about changes to work schedules and other matters, she says.
Booz Allen Hamilton—a McLean, Va.-based defense and intelligence contractor—keeps in touch with 25,000 employees through a tool called Send Word Now, which enables organizations to hit everyone with voice, email, and text messages, says Ray Thomas, a senior associate who oversees the business assurance office. (Some 3,000 employees work on the coast in the path of the hurricane, and another 13,000 work in the D.C. area.)
The tool also enables Booz Allen to receive information from employees. This helps the company figure out who has power and can work, and who probably cannot.
The company has teams of leaders who, in addition to their normal duties, coordinate responses for the affected offices, Thomas says.
"They were really pushing out most of the communications to their staff," he says. Staffers were given the option of working from home if offices were closed—or if they didn't feel safe coming in.
The company stressed this in its messaging: "Your safety is the most important thing, so whatever decision you make, make it in the context of absolutely making sure that you're safe," adds Booz Allen spokesman James Fisher.
Heavy use of Yammer
Employees also made heavy use of the company's internal Yammer platform, posting when their VPN connections weren't working, as well as reporting other issues. The company then offered other channels for connecting.
"Just blindly pushing information out is really only half the battle in an emergency," Thomas says. "It's really critical to be able to gather that information coming back and understand if there really are people in critical need so we can prioritize our efforts accordingly."
In a sign how serious the communications crisis was in the Northeast, Ragan.com could not reach perhaps a dozen corporations and government agencies on Tuesday. Offices were closed, cell phones had run out of power, and many communicators were as isolated as their staff.
"I forwarded [your message] to the team if they can help," one corporate spokeswoman emailed in response to an email seeking an interview. "People don't have power."
Hospitals were especially vulnerable. At one, flashlight-carrying staffers had to evacuate patients, carrying sick babies down nine flights of stairs. Four newborns were on respirators that were breathing for them, and when the power went out, nurses manually squeezed bags to deliver air to the babies' lungs, CNN reported.
The threat of a hurricane led officials at Greater Baltimore Medical Center to warn staff last Friday in preparation for the worst, says Michael Schwartzberg, media relations manager (he had just finished a 24-hour shift when he spoke to Ragan.com on Tuesday). Hospital officials reminded staffers to make arrangements for pets and children and told them to be prepared to stay overnight Monday.
Hospital supervisors urged staffers to sign up for its Code Messaging notification system. With the storm looming, there were more than 200 new signups.
Hospital staffers also used Twitter, Facebook, and its website to communicate with patients that elective and diagnostic procedures were canceled. They posted a photo of the Critical Incident Team, and they voiced sympathy with and prayers for the hospitals in New York that were evacuated. The messaging worked.
"It really showed that people now—employees, patients—are really paying attention to social media," Schwartzberg says.
If there's one company that needs to be ready to go, it's ServiceMaster, which offers pre- and post-disaster services following fires, floods, tornados, and other emergencies. ServiceMaster boards up windows before hurricanes, cleans out single-home basements after salt-water floods, and offers construction services, says Gina Kamler, director of franchise communications.
The company has 21,000 associates across seven brands, and when a disaster approaches, it activates a dark website that lets them know the areas that may be affected and what state regulations they might face, Kamler says.
ServiceMaster reached out to branch managers in affected areas, communicating safety messages and offering help to those who might be affected. It also uses internal Yammer networks-one for employees and another for its franchise group, which employs an additional 31,000 people.
Tips for the public
ServiceMaster provides tips to the general public through Facebook and Twitter. The social tools have helped extend its reach both internally and externally.
"The ability to use the social tools—the Yammer, the Facebook, the Twitter this year—is something we added for the past two storms, and especially ramped up for this storm," Gina Kamler says.
Williams, who was still waiting to hear back from a sister in New Jersey on Tuesday afternoon, says the media play an important role in communications. At Goodyear, where he previously worked, the media was a major part of messaging, and the company told employees to check with radio and TV stations for closures or delays.
Phone trees, though low-tech, can also an effective means of reaching employees, he says.
"You have to be comfortable with only a fractional percentage of your staff getting the word," Williams says. "In Hurricane Katrina, companies had a hard time even finding their workers—evacuations and chaos made it really hard. So, you need multiple means to reach out, and you have to be careful about messaging."
Russell Working is a staff writer for Ragan.com.