Global Practices

When Disaster Strikes

5 Tips for Disaster Communications



Living in Indonesia, disaster response planning is not just an academic exercise, it is necessity. The country spans a vast archipelago – 17,000+ islands stretching farther than the continental USA is wide – and sits on the so-called “ring of fire” of tectonic plate collisions, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that constantly affects this young republic of over 242 million people.  And unfortunately, the people of Indonesia – like those of many other countries – are no strangers to acts of terrorism. 

The sad reality is that tragedies do and will continue to exist – whether naturally occurring or otherwise. And while this remains a constant, what continues to change are the methods in which we communicate these events. Recent disasters, with the bombings and subsequent manhunts in Boston being one example, highlight the significant shift in how breaking news is reported.

Clients will know that Edelman has long-championed the view that everyone is a publishing house now. And, in lighter moments, we have seen how brands can quickly create content to take advantage of the fleeting and topical.

But what about more serious disasters?

While I agree every firm is a publishing house of content, I am beginning to come to the view that every firm is not, and should not try to be, a breaking news outlet (other than for their own news). As media distribution and consumption accelerates, it is becoming increasingly important to remain grounded in responsible practices. Below I outline five personal conclusions I have reached regarding responsible and accurate disaster communications:

Firefighters in Japan assist a simulated victim during a Tropical Cyclone Condition of Readiness exercise. Image by Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet.

  1. If your firm is not directly involved, ask yourself if you should really comment. Keep in mind it may be a changing situation and your first assumptions about what is happening, and their consequences, may be way off and, subsequently, play very badly. Do not be the PR equivalent of an ambulance-chaser.
  2. If your firm is directly involved, give prompt and considered information quickly. Effective, fast communications is not hair-trigger PR, however, and it can still be considered. The basic rules of crisis PR apply: use a crisis go-team, and an information cascade, but don’t bury response planning in a committee.
  3. Be careful reacting to anything seen on Twitter. Great social PR is not about being first to comment – be sure that you understand exactly what has happened, and that you’re comfortable your brand should be commenting on it at all, before you use corporate Twitter assets. 
  4. If your firm is directly involved, do ensure that all your online assets behave responsibly. Acknowledge what has happened and consider use of a splash page to override your normal website front page; make sure fresh content on your Twitter assets reflects a tone of voice and content appropriate to the events occurring.
  5. Ensure your firm’s preparedness. Assess, plan and take contingent action should one of your key suppliers – or any supplier with which you can be associated – suffers or indeed causes a major incident or tragedy. Ask yourself: How would our firm demonstrate the steps we took to ensure our key suppliers behave legally and responsibly when working on our behalf?

Stephen Lock is head of public affairs in South East Asia and CEO of our Indonesian businesses.

Above: An anti-government protest in Warsaw, Poland. Image by CobraVerde.
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