5 lessons from a Hurricane Harvey crisis response

Natural disasters pose many problems for PR pros and crisis responders. A year after devastation flooded Houston, one PR pros looks back on a message that rose to the challenge.

A good crisis message can reverberate days or months afterward.

A year ago, as cities in southeast Texas braced for and endured for Hurricane Harvey, storm-related messages spread across social media.

As a communications professional in Texas, I watched the disaster unfold as the hurricane hit close to home, giving me an intimate glimpse of the heroism in the Houston area with agencies, first responders and fellow Texans helping their neighbors in need.

Crisis communicators also rose to the challenge. However, one particularly poignant statement holds a lesson for all PR professionals. In advance of the storm, Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Rios (in the absence of Mayor CJ Wax) of Rockport, Texas, advised residents to evacuate.

He said in a press conference: “We’re suggesting if people are going to stay here, mark their arm with a Sharpie pen with their name and social security number. We hate to talk about things like that. It’s not something we like to do but it’s the reality; people don’t listen.”

The message resonated widely, was retweeted thousands of times, and the message itself became headlines in major news channels worldwide.

PR pros understand that messages must be crafted quickly and vetted by that organization’s chain of command, plus emergency management and legal entities. Often, the more people who review and approve a message, the weaker the message becomes. Mr. Rios’ message was strong. While being a responsible leader, Rios and the communicators who created the message showed the world a thing or two about powerful messaging.

1. Keep it simple.

The message was a single sentence that delivered an instruction a child could understand. By scrubbing the message of all ambiguity and euphemisms, Rios left residents with a simple message that was nearly impossible to misinterpret. Corpus Christi Mayor Joe McComb also demonstrated this beautifully with the simple message of, “Get Out of Dodge.”

2. Be specific.

Getting specific often counteracts efforts to simplify, as the two are often at odds with each other. The beauty of Rios’ message is that it did both. One simple sentence created a powerful image that had deep resonance for his audience.

3. Make it vivid.

Storytelling, examples and anecdotes are more effective than generalizations and statistics. If you paint a picture with your words, you’re much more likely to imprint a memorable message in your audience’s minds. The image of first responders checking the identification of deceased victims made a bigger impact than boilerplate precautionary statements ever could have. At a time when audiences are oversaturated with media, the Sharpie comment cut through the noise to get people to look up from their phones and listen.

Another instance of vivid messaging was when, in an interview with NPR, meteorologist Matthew Cappucci explained the magnitude of the rainfall Hurricane Harvey brought. Cappucci said that 9 trillion gallons of water in a 36-hour-period was equivalent to 33,000 Empire State Buildings (from basement to penthouse) or fourteen million Olympic-size swimming pools.

Most people wouldn’t know what 9 trillion gallons of water would look like—until they heard these vivid comparisons.

4. Find the narrative.

Good stories have a beginning, middle and end. Recipients of the message could easily slot the powerful Sharpie message into the “end” of this Hurricane story, and know exactly how this terrible narrative would end if they didn’t heed the advice of the mayor. The mayor told that narrative with no uncertain ending.

5. Appeal to emotions.

Emotions were already running high as thousands of people face a catastrophe that will change their lives for years to come. However, to get his message across, the mayor triggered a particular emotion (fear) in his target audience: those reluctant to evacuate.

Crisis communicators know all too well that there are often nuances that prevent bold and simple messages from being shared. PR professionals and crisis communicators must do their best to craft clear, useful messages in the hopes to limit the scope of tragedies.

As a Texan—and as a communicator—I was proud to see shining examples of excellent communications that ultimately saved lives.

Leila Lewis is a corporate communications professional in Austin, Texas.

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