Trylon Communications  - September 2005

PR Disaster

Last month’s tragic disaster in New Orleans resulted in scenes that will forever be etched into the psyche of all Americans: citizens left behind without a safety net, local political leaders begging for help on television and rescue efforts intolerably delayed. While the government instructed residents of New Orleans to evacuate, they gave them neither the resources nor cohesive instructions on how to do so effectively. A clear crisis communication plan from the government could have signaled a decisive, proactive strategy in handling the rescue effort, instead of the bureaucratic missteps which ensued.

Most business and civic organizations have already instituted crisis communication strategies that include quick reaction, recognition of the problem, defined actions to address the issues, and a clearly defined path to rectify errors and investigate allegations.

In the case of Katrina, when there were indications of disaster more than two days in advance of the event, a crisis communications platform could and should have been erected in anticipation of a worst-case scenario.

Instead of waiting for days to assess the damage, the communications team could have instantly moved into action. During the initial briefing, the team should have delivered an agenda of positive steps that the administration would be taking to ascertain the extent of the damage and initiate rescue and recovery efforts.

FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) should have listed the resources that were expected to be employed immediately to aid storm survivors. This would include National Guard troops, supply caravans, emergency communications deployments, etc. Simply enumerating the steps that were being taken and letting the public know that the government was not sitting on its hands while people suffered would have eliminated much of the clamor that grew over a perceived lack of response to the situation.

The President should have taken the lead and immediately demanded measurable action. It should not have taken repeated requests from local leaders to prompt such activities.

There will be many lessons learned from the devastating tragedy of Katrina. One of the most important lessons is the need for a strong communications channel to both victims and the public under confusing and horrific circumstances.