Advances in Crisis Communications Tied to Social and Natural Upheavals 

In much the same way that climate and geological changes have shaped life on Earth, the major disruptions of our time have changed the course of crisis communictions. At the PRSA Conference in Orlando, Fla., on Oct. 17, John Deveney of Deveney Communication traced some of the trends that have followed from these disasters and disruptions.

"What doesn’t’ surprise me is how crisis facilititates advances in communications," said Deveney, whose agency led the response to Hurricane Katrina for the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orlreans tourist industry, and also led the Louisiana Office of Tourism's response to the BP oil spill. "After 9/11, one thing that communicators took note of was that only satellite phones continued to work, [and so they became familiar with that technology]."

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina facilitated advances in the use of texting by communicators. "Cellular was down, but you could text," said Deveney. "At that time you had CEOs who had no idea what texting was." 

Deveney's work on the response to the BP spill was a clear indicator of how things had changed since Katrina and, perhaps more than any significant global event, moved social media closer to the head of the agenda for most communicators. 

"The time that elapsed between Katrina and the BP spill was roughly five years," said Deveney. "During Katrina, social media didn’t exist, practically speaking. It was amazing that in such a short amount of time something would become not just prevalent, but dominant. With the BP spill we knew that the campaign wouldn’t have been as successful if we hadn’t had a strong social media element." 

Deveney said the current Occupy Wall Street movement may be the next catalyst of change in crisis communications. "This movement is fascinating," he said. "One would think that if everything is going in the direction of social media and the movement is so youthful, that everybody would be sitting in coffeehouses and cubicles and Facebooking and tweeting. Instead people are coming together in real spaces and creating community. The Occupy movement shows that there isn’t a single channel people are looking to. So the message for communicators is that you need to incorporate live events and community relations in your crisis response, as well as social media."

Echoing a larger theme of this year's PRSA Conference, Deveney said that social media platforms are, in the end, just another element to be integrated into larger communications strategies. "It's not new thinking that you have to facilitate your messages through all channels," he said.