Early in the afternoon of June 7 – a Sunday – a series of tornadoes touched down in the Denver Metro area, terrifying shoppers at Aurora’s Southlands mall and sending nearby families into the basement.
Some of the affected were Allstate customers, some of them weren’t. But in the immediate days following a catastrophic storm, the insurance industry is always subjected to life under a magnifying glass. I quickly dialed my boss’ home number.
What followed was a 48-hour period fueled by sleep deprivation, Starbucks, late night phone calls, more Starbucks, countless drives to Aurora, did I mention Starbucks and early morning appearances with local news. What resulted were 37 positive media stories featuring Allstate and an integrated and coordinated response effort, internally and externally.
Every organization exists in its own “tornado alley” – that area where your reputation can be twisted, turned, manipulated and shattered by whirling forces beyond your control. But when storms threaten our organizations, it isn’t enough to simply “take shelter”, we need to have an active plan and be ready for the debris that will follow.
Every Department Needs a Plan
Your crisis plan needs to leave the public relations ghetto and involve every department in your organization. One month before the tornado touched down, our PR team led each department in our region through a catastrophe planning session, where everyone detailed what they would do in the event of a crisis.
Our Result: Each area knew what they had to do and there was more action and was less hemming and hawing about who was responsible for what.
Follow the Forecast
In the case of our severe weather, we were closely following the local weather forecasts. However, there are warning signs for most every crisis. As the crisis appeared more eminent, we took steps to respond. Prepare for the possibility that the situation may turn into a crisis, but be ready to revert to business as usual if the storm blows over.
Our Result: Despite the timing (a Sunday afternoon), our careful monitoring allowed us to have media representation on-site within a few hours of the tornado and provide senior leaders updates before they sat down for Sunday dinner.
Be Accessible at All Hours
There is no such thing as 9-to-5 during a crisis. We live in a 24-hour news cycle. Make sure every newsdesk in town knows how to reach you – whether you are at your desk or in your bed. During a crisis, media will be clamoring for information and your senior leaders will be hungry for updates. The savvy PR professional will be accessible, available and ready to deliver.
Our Result: By letting news desks know they could reach me after hours and overnight, we were able to arrange a dozen media segments before 8 a.m. Monday morning. Yes, this means your phone may ring at odd hours (1:30 a.m. anyone?), but would you rather they call you . . . or a competitor?
Remember the Victim
Luckily the tornado that landed near Southlands, while damaging, didn’t completely destroy any homes. Just because the damage from the crisis may be minor, that doesn’t mean it was minor to those affected. If your crisis affects people, it becomes very personal to them. Without empathy and heart, corporations will lose every time. We made sure our messages were focused on the needs of those affected. Our primary message was “we are there for our customers in their time of need.”
The Result: By keeping the customer at the heart of our crisis planning, we were able to maximize our media coverage with customer-centric messages. By working with other departments before, during and after the crisis, we were able to help ensure that these messages were not just corporate speak, but a philosophy our organization lived.
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