In 2019 Annual Conference

Panel on Communicating Effectively in a Natural Disaster

By Madelene Skinner  @ms_madfab, Jacksonville Chapter


In this session, we learned from practitioners with recent experience in a natural crisis and how planning for a crisis is key to a communications plan. Although each crisis was unique (EF-3 tornado in Alabama and Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle), response time and reactive approaches were similar.

Most crisis plans should be no more than a 3 page document with who’s in charge and point of contacts. Everyone should have a crisis communications plan and ensure your executive team to buys into the plan.

The EF-3 tornado that hit the Alabama area is an example of implementing a reactive approach of a crisis happening without a lead time in notice. The 2 staff member team led the crisis communications, social media efforts, while also coordinating with FEMA, recovery teams, and other agencies. Due to the small community environment, the team was able to connect with first responders and report on any casualties with a 15-minute lead time in coordination.

From the Hurricane Michael efforts in the City of Mexico Beach, keeping the customer informed was important through “old school” paper notifications mixed with the use of technology to also reach customers on Facebook. Prior to this natural disaster, there was not a huge social media presence for the city, however, the community came together with the message of HOPE as everyone coped through the disaster.

Consider this when using social media in a crisis:

  • Provide 24 hour coverage since people are looking at social media as a source (media is looking too!)
  • Focus on stakeholders not the media
  • Use Facebook live
  • Don’t go on vacation J

Words of wisdom for community relations in a crisis:

  • A sense of community is developed from a crisis and bring about positive ways in which groups can on solutions.
  • Important to understand it’s a marathon not a sprint –
  • Not a quick fix (challenge), stay optimistic and positive
  • Never believe the first report (these usually have not been verified)
  • Consider different audiences and their need/request – when interested in helping (filter out the bad seeds)
  • Watch out for fake fundraising campaigns
  • Coordinate with FEMA other recovery team agencies – they are a great source!
  • New technologies are not a priority to be efficient
  • Work with one media contact/station

And finally, what should be in your Crisis Communication plan outline?

  • an organizational chart
  • defined roles
  • personnel
  • skilled personnel related to the “campus” or network
  • media contact list
  • community contacts

Tips for internal team to buy in to the plan:

  • Consider that crisis have different scales
  • Organize based on crisis
  • Include the operational team to support the operational decisions

And did you know, FEMA and homeland security have crisis communications resources available for review.

Always be proactive.

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