Early PR Lessons From Tropical Storm Harvey

It’s Friday afternoon, August 25, and you’re at work in Houston. You’re expecting Hurricane Harvey, but you’ve heard on radio and television that an evacuation of your city, America’s fourth largest, is not recommended. Local officials, including your mayor, Sylvester Turner, have reiterated that message.

You’re concerned, but not overly worried. As a longtime Houston-area resident you recall the experience you had when evacuating in anticipation of Hurricane Rita in 2005. More than 100 people died during that evacuation. Traffic was hellacious. No thanks.

After lunch, though, someone tells you to look online. There’s a report quoting the state’s governor, Greg Abbott, and he’s advising Houston residents to evacuate. “Even if an evacuation order hasn’t been issued by your local official, if you’re in an area between Corpus Christi and Houston, you need to strongly consider evacuating…If I were living in the Houston region, as I once did, I would decide to head to areas north of there.” Word is that the governor’s evacuation comment was unplanned, as this press release indicates.

What should you and your family do?

Skip to today. You’re living with friends north of Houston and you’re trying to restart your life, as your home’s first floor is underwater.

shutterstock_703952803Now’s not finger-pointing time. Rescue, assistance and recovery are the top priorities. In addition, much more information needs to be collected before one can say unequivocally that evacuating or not evacuating was the correct call. The evacuation/no evacuation debate may never be settled. Still, the lesson for crisis communicators is obvious: A coordinated message from leadership is critical during the run-up to an impending crisis. Houston was the worst-case scenario in that local and state government leaders emitted clear messages; the problem was they conflicted. Residents were left in the middle of the debate.

Another somewhat obvious and related lesson: Coordinated communication also is essential during a crisis. One of the needs now in flood-ravaged areas is for coordination between governmental and nonprofit organizations working on recovery operations. Ditto the need for coordinated communication between the various entities. Early indications are that recovery and communication are going well given the circumstances.

Adding to the coordination issues, of course, is that private citizens from within and outside Texas are jumping into the waters to help government and nonprofits rescue those in need. Bless these good souls for what they’re doing, though they likely raise the need for coordination and coordinated communications.

For brands, bravo to those collecting donations for Texas and those offering direct services to the affected–Q Link Wireless, for example, is extending free unlimited calling to mobile phone customers. Be cautious, though. It’s a fine line between letting customers know you’re offering help and trumpeting that help for image-burnishing reasons.

One last crisis lesson that we hope is being practiced in the disaster areas is the need for patience. That applies to those in need as well as members of the organizations and government units helping in recovery. As Linda Rutherford, CCO of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, noted in her recent article about the brand’s booking-related crisis last summer when nearly 2,000 flights were canceled, the volume of inquiries during a crisis can be enormous. During Southwest’s crisis the number of customer queries the airline received in one hour equaled what it usually fields during an entire day.

The journey for Houstonians already has been arduous. It’s unlikely to get easier.

Follow Seth: @skarenstein