Effective weather-related PR begins long before a storm threatens a client and continues well after the storm has passed. The Cayman Islands is located in the Caribbean’s hurricane belt. For 13 years, Mfa, Ltd. Marketing & Public Relations has handled U.S. public relations for the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism (CIDOT), including management of communications during severe weather. In September 2004, Hurricane Ivan struck the Cayman Islands with sustained winds exceeding 100 mph during a period of seven hours, as the eye of the storm passed 21 miles southwest of the main island, Grand Cayman. Residents of the island felt the effects of wind gusts exceeding 220 mph, a 10-foot storm surge and 12 inches of rain.
Client contacts faced the daunting tasks of protecting their homes and families and simultaneously being responsible for regular outbound tourism communications.
Following the storm, extensive damage to infrastructure, major resorts, beaches and private homes on the three Cayman Islands was estimated at more than $1 billion. The country had to rebuild not only its infrastructure, but also one of its key industries: tourism.
A critical piece of post-storm public relations for CIDOT included pitching and securing island recovery stories in major newspapers, helping convince potential visitors that the island was restored and that many hotels and attractions had improved their facilities. Simultaneously, the agency was supporting clients who had undergone serious personal losses.
The process begins with overall strategic planning well before the June 1 start of hurricane season. This includes identifying client point people, their responsibilities within the client organization during the crisis, emergency contact information and the roles of agency partners coordinating emergency preparation and response. Media contact lists (including social media handles) must be up-to-date and relationships developed with key media contacts, particularly at the weather and news desks.
During the initial contact with media prior to each season, query reporters to confirm exactly what information they’ll want in the event of a storm. Gather the most up-to-date government storm preparation documents. Have a social media strategy and assigned roles for posting, responding, engaging and clarifying inaccuracies throughout the crisis.
When a severe storm is forecast, focus on keeping the media constantly informed. External PR should first meet to review systems and strategy, media lists and team assignments, and then alert client as to whom the point person will be for the upcoming days. Prepare for 24/7 staffing.
To ensure these strategies and tactics are successfully implemented, make clear to the client and media contacts that the PR agency is available as much as necessary to handle media requests throughout the preparations, the storm and recovery periods. Set up hurricane email news alerts. Communicate with media as often as possible using official preparedness documents that have been released for residents and visitors.
The PR agency should track weather systems regularly. U.S. media relations/social media monitoring and engagement begins once official storm communications are released from national weather services.
The PR agency then alerts key U.S. weather, travel and news media on the status of preparedness and airport accessibility. It also verifies who at the media outlets will be the point person for reporting news throughout the coming days and if the contact person changes for weekend coverage.
At this point, social media monitoring is focused on knowing what, if anything, media are posting, especially on Twitter.
When a hurricane is within hours of landfall, the PR agency needs to receive official statements on preparedness.
The agency team goes on 24/7 alert to secure accurate storm information, facilitate interviews with official spokespeople, monitor traditional and social media exposure and update media and social channels with current and relevant news.
Ongoing communications continues throughout the duration of the storm, until the “all clear” is given and PR can alert U.S. media that the area is back in business for visitors.
Provide details of said preparations, showcase sunny images if possible (contingent upon circumstance and storm severity) and offer client spokespeople for key media outlets.
Remember accurate and newsworthy information is key. Maintain focus on safety, travelers and visitation. Disseminate identical messaging through the destination’s official social channels. Track all storm-related articles and social mentions involving the client’s region.
In the event of overly sensational reporting among traditional media, reach out directly to the journalist and immediately/professionally/politely reiterate the facts. When faced with inaccuracies on social media, post corrections directly with both the specific journalist and the media outlet.
Remember, the media may be reporting on the impact of the storm beyond your client destination, so alert the outlets that they can always contact you for current, specific details.
Recovery communications portrays an honest, but optimistic outlook once the official “all clear” is provided. Take the official “all clear” and adapt it to reflect what the media need to know, emphasizing that the destination is back in business.
The media statement or press release should be distributed directly to key news/weather/travel media and newsdesks via the newswire and on the official destination and government social media channels and website.
Following the “all clear,” the agency should compile a comprehensive crisis communications report. Keep in mind that crisis communications does not end for the PR agency until the client destination is reported as recovered in the media.
Keys for Successful Public Relations in Natural Disasters
Initial media contact:
- Contact must begin prior to potential crises. Update weather contact/newsdesk media lists and build a good rapport with key contacts.
- Ensure media lists include: national broadcast, travel trade publications, wire services, national print (weather and travel reporters/desks), regional (daily newspapers/online counterparts) and local weather contacts/meteorologists.
- Build a separate list of important social media handles, including both specific reporters and media outlet contact information.
- Assign key agency team members as point people for media inquires, to facilitate interviews with client spokespeople and to handle social media dialogue.
- Distribute press releases and/or newsblasts with the latest information, as warranted.
- Ensure a back-up client contact is in place if the direct link to the client is compromised.
- Follow up and uphold dialogue with key media outlets.
- Disseminate all media communications via official social channels. —A.C.
Agatha Capacchione is VP and team leader, travel and hospitality, with Mfa, Ltd. Marketing & Public Relations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is an excerpt from PR News’ Crisis Management Guidebook, Vol. 7. To order a copy, please go to www.prnewsonline.com/crisis-management-guidebook-vol7.